Legal Issues

Using Someone Else’s Words (What Is Fair Use?)

One of the ways in which writing for publication has changed over the years involves the use of someone else’s words in something you write.

Once upon a time, what constituted fair use of copyrighted material was pretty straightforward, comprising three basic factors:

  1. The length of what you use
  2. The length of what you use it in
  3. The character of what you use it in

Each is relative to the other. So, for example, say you want to use a 400-word excerpt from someone else’s book. If the book is in the public domain, well, go right ahead, no worries. (Here’s a helpful explanation of how to determine if something is in the public domain.) But if the copyright is still in force, you might be okay to use 400 words. Might.

That’s where #2 might kick in. If you’re writing a devotion, say, of 500 words, and 400 of those words are quoted from somewhere else, well, anyone can see that that’s not fair. But say you’re only quoting 50 words. You’re free and clear, right? Not necessarily. If you’re quoting the lyrics of a song that isn’t in the public domain, for instance, you’re going to need written permission—and the usual answer to such requests is a big fat “no.”

However, that’s sometimes where #3 applies. If you’re reviewing a song or album, that kind of use (because it presumably respects the interests of the artist and/or copyright owner) is a likely exception.

If the above seems, well, rather imprecise to you, that’s probably because it is imprecise. There are no hard-and-fast rules. When I first started writing for publication (back when the printing press was a new technology), the general understanding seemed to be, as long as I carefully cited my source and used 500 or fewer words, meh. That was probably okay.

But more recently, I’ve had publishers insist that I obtain written permission for anything I quote or excerpt from a copyrighted source. Even one sentence! Crazy, I know; but every book contract I’ve ever signed says that I’m on the hook if someone decides to sue for copyright infringement. Getting permission means tracking down and contacting the copyright owner (which may be the author, publisher, or some other entity) and requesting permission to use the quote or excerpt. These days, this can sometimes be done using an online form, but not always. Sometimes the request is granted, sometimes a fee is charged, and sometimes the request is declined.

So, what’s a writer to do? I suggest:

  1. Keep careful records of every quote or excerpt you use.
  2. Cite every source carefully and completely.
  3. Avoid quoting song lyrics or poems unless you know they’re in the public domain.
  4. You don’t need permission to quote the titles of songs, movies, TV shows, etc. Titles aren’t copyrighted. But be sure it’s actually the title.
  5. Get in the habit of asking for permission well in advance of contract or publication and be prepared to pay or delete the passage (or rewrite it) if necessary.
  6. Never use photos you find online unless you know you have permission to do so (e.g., from a stock photo site).
  7. Note that specific Bible versions and translations define what constitutes fair use of their version. Most are generous, but there are limits.

And, lest you bemoan the unfairness of such restrictions when all you want to do is to make a point, keep in mind that respecting copyrights are an opportunity to practice the Golden Rule. After all, you hope that someday someone will properly and respectfully quote your copy, right? Right.


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