Updated April 2023
It’s perfectly okay to quote an excerpt of another author’s work in your writing, but it’s not always okay to do so without permission. If you don’t want to be sued for copyright infringement, it’s important to know when you need permission and when you don’t. And that’s not always obvious. Even the U.S. Copyright Office acknowledges how difficult it can be to determine when you need permission to quote:
The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.
When Do You Need To Get Permission To Use Quotes?
Copyright is a form of protection for creative and original works, and U.S. copyright is automatic the moment that work is formed into a “tangible form of expression” such as written on disk or paper, or recorded.
This work—whether it’s a song, sketch, or short story—is intellectual property, protected by copyright as long as it can be viewed (or communicated) in a fixed form. Reproducing copyrighted work without permission is copyright infringement.
So, when do you need permission to quote song lyrics or poems or excerpts from novels in your writing? The answer is: If quoting without permission results in copyright infringement, then you need to get permission.
If you want to quote a small piece of someone else’s material in your work—whether it’s song lyrics, poems, excerpts from novels or interviews, photographs, or material from the Internet—you must credit the source, even if you plan to use only one or two lines of a song or poem.
But keep in mind that acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material is not a substitute for acquiring permission from the copyright owner.
Because quoting can be so tricky, some writers try to quote only from publications that fall under the fair use category. Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright’s website contains a list of the purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair use. This includes using quoted material for the use of criticism, commentary, teaching, parody, summary, and research—to name a few.
If you’re writing a book and you want to include a quote for purposes of commentary or parody, you’re probably within your rights to do so, provided that you’re just excerpting a short quote and not including, say, an entire short story or poem. But as always, do credit the source.
Another exception is if the material falls under public domain, like ideas, titles of books, slogans, and names—things that cannot be copyrighted. Public domain material includes work created before January 1, 1923, works for which the copyright has expired—and most federal and state government documents. However, to make things more complicated, even if a work is in the public domain in the United States, it may still be protected overseas, where the rules concerning copyright duration differ.
And, finally, if a work is licensed under Creative Commons, you may not need permission to quote from it. Creative Commons licenses “help creators retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work, at least non-commercially.” (Check out the Creative Commons website for further clarification of their rules and exceptions.)
The U.S. Copyright Office advises: “The safest course is to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. When it is impracticable to obtain permission, you should consider avoiding the use of copyrighted material unless you are confident that the doctrine of fair use would apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine whether a particular use may be considered fair nor advise on possible copyright violations.”
If you do successfully track down the copyright owner, be prepared to pay for the privilege of using their work. Sometimes you’ll receive permission for free (as your work may be seen as promotion), but fees can range from a few bucks to thousands of dollars.
Finally, don’t assume you can obtain permission to quote “later,” as in after your book is published. You may find yourself having to destroy all copies, not to mention facing legal fees and copyright damages.
A Practical Approach To Quotes And Permissions
Is it now crystal clear to you when you need permission to quote in your own writing? Probably not. The issue of copyright infringement is complex and fraught with gray areas, so before you quote song lyrics, poems, excerpts of novels, or other material in your writing, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
As a general guideline, if you’re going to be quoting a lot of text, get permission. And if you’re just quoting a single line but aren’t certain it’s okay to do it, get permission then too. You might think you don’t need permission for short quotes from properly cited sources. But when in doubt, play it safe.
At Writer’s Relief, we are writers’ advocates—but we don’t claim to offer legal advice. If you want to quote someone else’s material in your own work, we urge you to research copyright law carefully or, even better, consult an intellectual property attorney.
Photo by jmawork