May 19

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Do You Really Need Permission to Use That Quote?

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

May 19, 2021

copyright, ghostwriting, writing mistakes

As an author, do you really need permission to use that quote? The answers—and the process—may not be what you think. You may have been tempted to use a quote from another book or a song or even a movie in your book. However, if you do that without the other author’s permission, you may be guilty of copyright infringement. So when do you need to secure permission to quote? And how do you do it?

Erin Gurski headshot

This article is based on a podcast conversation with copyright expert Erin Gurski, teaching assistant at Copyright.laws.com. Previously, Erin held the positions of Copyright Officer and Advisor, Intellectual Property at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, and Executive Director and Licensing Agent for Copyright Visual Arts (a Canadian national non-profit organization).

Listen to the Empowered Author Podcast episode with Erin by clicking below. We also encourage you to subscribe, rate, and review, to help other authors find empowering information.

First, let’s lay the groundwork with some copyright basics.

As an author, there are two main reasons why you need to know about copyright:

  1. It helps you avoid getting into legal trouble and ruining your reputation if you quote someone else in your work.
  2. It empowers you as an author to protect your own work.

What is permission to quote?

Permission to quote involves getting the express, legal permission from someone else – another author or a songwriter, for instance – to quote their work in yours.  

Fair use is essentially the exception to copyright: it means that you can quote from copyrighted material without having to get permission to quote first. Many Commonwealth countries – including Canada – use the term “fair dealing” instead.

What is the public domain?

When a work is in the public domain, it doesn’t have copyright. This can include a work that was created before copyright became law, a work not covered by copyright law in that country, a work where the copyright expired or one where the creator waived copyright.  

Probably the biggest misconception about copyright is the idea that as long as you’re not commercially successful, you can basically use whatever you want. While it probably won’t get noticed if you sell only a handful of copies of your book, there is always a chance that someone will stumble upon it and alert the copyright holder.

Another common misconception is that it’s okay to quote from another work as long as you give credit. This actually goes into the territory of moral right, which is the creator’s right to have their name associated with their work. The laws around moral right can be even stricter than copyright law.     

How do you know if you need permission to use that quote?

Copyright law varies from country to country, so it’s always best to check the laws specific to the country that you’re publishing in. (Check our blogs on copyright internationally, in Canada, the UK, the US, and Australia.) However, you can assess the risk of not getting permission to quote. If a court has to decide whether something is considered fair use or fair dealing, some of the factors they would look at would include:

  • The purpose of use: Whether the work is used commercially or not. As an author who will hopefully sell your book, you will be using the work commercially, even if you only sell a few copies.
  • The character of use: Whether its use is meant for widespread dispersion. A quote will more likely be considered fair use if it’s in a private email than if it’s in a book available everywhere, to anyone.
  • The amount used and what exactly has been used: When a court looks at what you’ve used from another work, they not only look at whether you’ve used a sentence or an entire chapter. They also look at what exactly it is that you’ve used. For example, there’s a big difference between using the chorus of a song – essentially the heart of the song – than a line hidden in the second verse.
  • The nature of the work: Whether it’s a creative product or whether it’s factual information. A well-known fact is more likely to be considered fair use.
  • Alternatives: Could you have quoted from a different source – especially one in the public domain – instead?
  • The effect on market value: If you are quoting significantly from someone else’s work and you’re selling your book in the same market as theirs, the court is less likely to consider it fair use, since you’ll be competing for market share.    

What about song lyrics?

Song lyrics are also subject to copyright and you need permission to quote them. In fact, people in the music industry often have an entire team whose job it is to make sure nobody’s infringing their copyright.  

How do you secure permission to quote?

When you want to quote from another work, the first thing to do is to check whether that work is in the public domain. If it is, you don’t have to worry about seeking permission to quote. However, it’s wise to check what the law in a particular country says about moral right: you may have to still cite the original copyright holder.

If the work isn’t in the public domain, follow these steps:

  1. Approach the first point of contact for the work. For a book, that would most likely be the publishing company. For a song, it would be the record company. They will tell you who the copyright holder is and who you need to contact.
  2. When you approach the copyright holder, include as much information as you can, such as:
  3. Your name as author or co-author
  4. The title or working title of your book
  5. The name of the publisher
  6. Where and how the book will be distributed
  7. How much your book will be selling for
  8. What you’re writing about
  9. What you want to quote
  10. Why you want to quote it.
  11. Be prepared to pay a licensing fee if required.

Keep a record of all your efforts to track down the copyright holder. If you cannot track the person down, this will cover you in case they ever approach you about copyright infringement. Then check whether your country has a way to make provision for cases where the copyright holder can’t be located. In Canada, for instance, you can approach the Copyright Board of Canada for a licence to use the material.

What about paraphrasing?

Many authors mistakenly think that if they paraphrase, they don’t need to seek permission to quote. However, copyright is not only about specific words in a specific order; it’s about the written expression of an idea. An author can’t simply use a synonym for a word here and there but keep the majority of the quote without crediting the original creator or, depending on how much is used, asking for the creator’s permission. Using essentially the same words without the creator’s permission is not paraphrasing and can still be deemed copyright infringement.

What’s your experience obtaining permission to quote?

We’d love to hear about your successes, and perhaps more valuable are the times you tried and failed to secure permission to use a quote. Let us know in the comments below.

What do you think?

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