No matter what genre you write in, at some point you may find yourself wanting to quote someone else’s work. Unless the quote is in the public domain, using a direct quote from another book, poem, song, movie, blog, or other source requires formal permission from the original author or rightsholder. But how do you know when you need permission, and what’s the best way to make the request? Writer’s Relief has some tips that can help writers with questions about permissions, fair use, and copyright.
Caveat: We are not lawyers and do not give advice about legal questions; this article about permissions, fair use, and copyright is for information only. Speak with an attorney about all legal issues.
When You Do—And Don’t—Need To Request Formal Permission
There are some uses that fall under “fair use,” which permits limited quoting of source material without having to seek permission from the copyright holder. Here are some general guidelines:
Short quotes. Generally, you don’t need permission for short quotes. However, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what constitutes “short.” If you’re using a line or less from the original work, you probably don’t need to seek permission. But if the piece you’re quoting from is especially short (like a song or poem), ask yourself whether the quote is more than 10% of the total work. If the answer is yes, it might be best to get formal permission.
Songs, poems, shows, or movies. Mentioning certain songs or movies can be crucial to grounding your work. You can include the title of a song, movie, poem, etc., fairly and freely—but if you want to quote material from that work, it’s more likely you’ll need permission. Again, if it’s a very short song or poem, you might need to get permission even if you’re only using a single line or phrase.
Paraphrased material. Though another person’s own words may be copyrighted, the general idea or sentiment expressed in those words is not. So if you’re able to paraphrase the line (or few lines) you want to quote, you may be able to avoid seeking permission—so long as your phrasing is meaningfully different from the source material. Changing a couple of articles or pronouns won’t make enough of a difference.
Commercial vs. nonprofit or educational use. A lot of creators tend to look more sympathetically on people using their work for an educational or not-for-profit reason—and less favorably on someone taking their intellectual property and profiting from it. Basically, if you’re making money from someone else’s work, they should be paid too.
How To Formally Request Permission
Identify the rightsholder. Though the rightsholder may be the author or creator of the original work, that person may also be represented by an agent, publisher, university, etc.—or, if they’re dead, a beneficiary or estate representative—who handles copyrights and permissions on their behalf. This is especially true for published works. An Internet search will usually point you in the right direction.
Present specific information in your request. Beyond just the author, title, and ISBN or copyright of the original piece, you’ll need to provide details on your plans for the material you’re asking permission to use: In what work will you be using this quote? Will you be publishing any copies of your work, or performing it? Are any other authors contributing quotes to your work? Will you be selling it, and if so, for how much? Check out this sample permissions letter from publishing expert Jane Friedman.
Allow adequate time for processing. If the work you’re asking to use is older, it’s likely that an agent or other representative will need to do substantial research, not to mention check the constraints of other contracts they have for that work. A permissions request can take several months to process, and they can’t always be expedited. Ask for permissions as far in advance as possible so that you can still meet your deadlines.
Be prepared to pay. Though some permissions are granted for free, you should be prepared to pay to use even a very short piece of a published work. What you’ll be charged for permissions can range from a hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. The cost will depend on various factors, including the relative prestige of the work you’re quoting and the scope of your own use (if you’re planning on a large print run of your book featuring this quote, for example).
When In Doubt, Always Ask For Permission
Copyright laws are murky and complex—even lawyers don’t always have all the answers. If you have even a shadow of a doubt about using someone’s work without permission, remember that it’s always better to ask. Being sued over copyright is not a risk you want to take.
We hope this brief introduction to the ins and outs of permissions, fair use, and copyrights has been helpful! For further information, always consult an attorney who specializes in copyright law.
Question: Have you ever requested formal permission? Share your experience in the comments!