Saturday, February 23, 2019

Permissions 101

May 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Blog, Self publishing

We book authors often want to quote from other writers to make a point. How do we know how much we may quote without infringing copyright and breaching what is considered “Fair Use?”

The copyright laws’ definition of Fair Use depends upon what portion of a work you are quoting and the significance of the portion being copied. Quoting a “substantial portion” of an original work, like 10 lines out of a 30-line poem, breaches Fair Use. A hundred words from a 200-page book may be okay, depending on whether those 100 words are the heart of the book or not. But what about a 100-word quote from a news article or a paper in an academic journal?


© Dawn Hudson |

Keep in mind that even articles appearing on the internet are covered by copyright law. News organizations especially can be quite vigilant and strict about enforcing their copyright. So think twice before you copy chunks of articles from the New York Times website to include in your book without requesting permission.

The way the copyright laws are written, authors take a big risk if they infringe the copyright of a major publisher. If a publisher takes a copyright case to court and can prove that they own copyright in a piece, the person accused of copyright infringement will be required to pay all legal costs plus a penalty.

What does this mean? Let’s say you copy text or illustrations from another publication without permission (and without cover from Fair Use), then you paste it into your book and self-publish it. You get a letter from a lawyer citing you for infringing copyright and demanding recompense. You would have little option but to settle out of court and pay up, since you’re likely to have difficulty finding a lawyer who will defend you.

The bottom line is this: If you’re in doubt how much of a work you can include in your book under the Fair Use provisions of the copyright laws, then as an editor, I’d recommend you email the publisher and request permission. All major publishers have a Permissions Department listed on their website.

I have guidelines that I use when working with my clients to assess whether quotes are Fair Use. I advise my authors on what I believe constitutes Fair Use in the context of their book and what requires permission. Typically, it is the author who does the work of requesting permissions where needed, but this is something that can be negotiated with the editor.

For a detailed discussion on copyright law and Fair Use, see this Wikipedia article. I especially liked the section on “Common Misunderstandings.”

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and does not constitute legal advice.

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