How Much Can I Quote From Another Source Without Permission?

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Question:
“I don’t have a ton of quotes in this manuscript. Any I do are short—maybe a sentence. What’s your take on the whole permissions/“fair use” argument? Over the years, I have heard more interpretations/explanations of what’s required when quoting someone than I’ve got fingers and toes. What’s the current practice in Christian publishing?”

Answer:
It depends!
Every publisher sets their own threshold of “fair use” versus requiring permissions.

One publisher requires permission for using 25 words or more from any one source, aggregate over the entirety of your book. This means if you quote 16 words in one place and 10 words in another, you must get written permission. Other publishers have a higher threshold where up to 300 words from a single source is permissible.

I spoke to one college professor who said they could lose their job if they misused quotations in their class handouts without the proper permissions!

Be very careful. Intellectual property is the latest playground for litigation.

It doesn’t mean you can’t quote or use something; you must simply receive permission ahead of time. Be prepared to pay a fee for the use of that material. The cost depends on the source material and the extent of your use.

Below is an edited version of what one publisher gives to their authors as their guideline. It is a basic guideline, but not all publishers follow this. If you are an independent author, you need to be extremely careful. You don’t want to receive a cease and desist letter from a major estate or publisher because you have overstepped the boundaries.

I’ve added some comments in bold in the text below to help explain.

Permissions Guidelines by a Publisher

Assume that everything created by a “creator” is covered by copyright law (except for that which is public domain). This includes the written word, music, cartoons, illustrations, film, charts, diagrams, and photographs in any form. Permission must be obtained from the copyright holders to use copyrighted material if the material is beyond the fair use guidelines (see below).

The author is responsible to obtain all permissions and releases necessary for any material to be quoted in the manuscript and pay for such permissions if needed. Remember that it can take considerable time to obtain permissions (up to eight weeks or more). It is important to be in communication with your editor about what needs permission and how likely it is that the quoted piece will appear in the final manuscript since the editing process may eliminate material for which you had sought permission.

Written permission is required for the following:

  • 300 or more words from a single prose work in book form—fewer than 300 words is considered fair use. (This is a subjective standard that has not been fully defined by the court. Check with your publisher to find out where their threshold is.)
  • 200 or more words from an article or other brief work (see above).
  • If the quote exceeds 50 percent of the work (even if it is less than 200 words).
  • Three or more lines of poetry or song lyrics. (Be especially paranoid about using song lyrics. The singer does not control the rights. The writer of the song does, and the rights are likely held by a large company. Read this article for further understanding.)
  • Charts, graphs, maps, cartoons. (You can’t just Google an image and use it because it’s on the Internet! For example, the majority of photos at the top of our blog posts are purchased for that use from bigstockphoto.com.)
  • Material that is complete within itself, such as a chapter of a book, an essay, a short story, a paradigm (i.e. the “Pyramid of Success” by John Wooden).
  • Letters/correspondence—permission must be obtained from the writer of the letter, not the recipient.
  • An internal quotation within another quotation may require permission if it is copyrighted and exceeds the bounds of fair use.
  • (One publisher told me they require written permission to quote anyone who is quoted as saying something in the author’s memoir. Family members, coworkers, etc. Without their permission, they cannot be cited, in case they disagree and file a lawsuit. This is not always the case; but as always, check with your publisher.)

No permission is needed for any material in the public domain; however, the author, title, and publisher should be acknowledged. (See my article on when something becomes public domain.)

Other articles to read:
Jane Friedman’s “Writers Guide to Permissions and Fair Use”

by Steve Laube:
“Quote the Bible Carefully” (be sure to read this before quoting a Bible translation)
“The Cost of Permissions vs. Fair Use”
“The Landmine of Fair Use”

Others of interest:
From Hollywood Reporter: “Sony Sued Over William Faulkner Quote in ‘Midnight in Paris'”
From Plagiarism Today: “Copyright Myths”
From Entertainment Today: “Ed Sheeran Sued for Copyright Infringement for ‘Thinking Out Loud'”

 

28 Responses to How Much Can I Quote From Another Source Without Permission?

  1. Mark Alan Leslie November 26, 2018 at 6:52 am #

    Back when I was a golf writer, a golf course architect who was writing a book (“18 Stakes on a Sunday Afternoon”) called. He said he was quoting me three times in his book and could he have my permission. I believe he mentioned his publisher said he needed permission if he used 35 words or more.
    Thinking back on that, I wonder if he really needed permission from my magazine rather than me.
    Regardless, shouldn’t the rule be what the law says not what the publisher’s guidelines are?

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 11:49 am #

      Mark,

      In your case much would depend on the language of your contract with the magazine.

      In magazines you usually are selling “first rights” which means they are the first to be able to use it. The rights to the article still remain with you. Thus you can sell the same article again as a “second rights” or “reprint rights”.

      I know of one man who sold the same article over 100 times using this procedure.

      • Catherine November 26, 2018 at 8:31 pm #

        Hi Steve,

        I wonder if you could weigh in on Mark’s last point. If there are laws in place, how is it that they can be overruled by a publisher’s guidelines to such an extent that a lawsuit could be undertaken? I understand that it is wise to follow a publisher’s guidelines, but I do not understand how they usurp the power of the law.

        Thank you!

        • Scott November 26, 2018 at 9:18 pm #

          I’m sure Steve has a more detailed answer, but the article linked under ‘poetry and song lyrics’ does a good job explaining the ambiguity of the laws (and it’s written by a lawyer).

          • Catherine November 26, 2018 at 9:51 pm #

            Thank you! I will check that out.

  2. Ruth A. Douthitt November 26, 2018 at 7:01 am #

    For my “First Christmas in Paris” novella I released last year, I sought permission to use on line from the songs “Smile” and “Unforgettable.” I had to track down the publishers of those songs. I did and sought permission. The price of using those lines was way too expensive for me, so I deleted the lines. For my other book,. “The Children Under the Ice,” I sought Disney’s permission to use the idea of a Disney Princess watch that one character wore. They asked to see the chapter(s) the name “Disney” would be in, how many times I would use it, and the context that I would use it. Too much trouble for me, so I deleted it and simply called it a princess watch in my book. LOL. Always best to try and seek permission beforehand.

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 11:47 am #

      Ruth,

      A great example of the challenges of using a brand name too!

    • L. K. Simonds November 26, 2018 at 11:56 am #

      My experience is similar to Ruth’s. Too much trouble to use some copyrighted work, particularly song lyrics. I dropped lyrics from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Cats, which were originally from T. S. Eliot’s poetry. I also dropped some worship song lyrics – I would’ve had to pay a percentage of every sale for those.

      I poetry by Yeats and Dickinson that was in the public domain. For the Dickinson poems, I contacted Harvard University, who holds the copyright to much of Dickinson’s writings. They confirmed the early versions of verse I used were public domain.

      When I think of fair use, I really think of referring to a thing, such as a play or television show. Sounds like that can get sticky very quickly with a brand, such as Disney.

  3. Mark Alan Leslie November 26, 2018 at 7:15 am #

    My first draft of one novel quoted parts of The Gambler, sung by Kenny Rogers. I discovered the song was written by someone else and, yes, the cost was prohibitive. You’d think they’d love the idea of their lyrics being quoted in a book. Free publicity.

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 11:46 am #

      Mark,
      That is an argument used by a lot of online publications when trying to convince a writer to give them their content for free. “But think of all the publicity!”

      Most publishers are in the revenue generating business. 🙂

  4. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D November 26, 2018 at 8:11 am #

    Steve, thanks for helping us navigate the litigation mind field.

  5. Jeanne Takenaka November 26, 2018 at 9:51 am #

    I’ve always wondered about the parameters of using words from other sources. Thanks for sharing this post, and for the links included so I can read further.

  6. Kay DiBianca November 26, 2018 at 10:36 am #

    This is such great information. I wanted to use several lines from a song in my novel, but I was warned that copyright permission was so hard to get that it wasn’t worth the effort.
    But I was so sure I could navigate the troubled waters, I spent a considerable amount of time and finally found the copyright holder and paid for permission to use the lyrics. It was expensive, but I was convinced I needed the lyrics. It took a couple of months to get everything settled.
    Just before my publisher was ready to go to print, I noticed the permission was just for the U.S. Not wanting to limit the distribution of the book, and not willing to wait to get the international copyright permission, I rewrote the section of the book and removed the lyrics. Fortunately, the copyright holder refunded most of my payment.
    However, I learned a valuable lesson. If I decide to use copyrighted material in the future, at least I have a little experience. But now I know why everybody was warning me against it.

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 11:50 am #

      Great example!

  7. Sharon Kay Connell November 26, 2018 at 11:10 am #

    Thank you for the information, Steve. We have to be so careful. I try to stick with public domain or avoid using someone else’s work altogether.

  8. Catherine November 26, 2018 at 11:16 am #

    Just to be clear, is “the publisher” your publisher, or the publisher of the material you wish to quote? Thank you!

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 11:53 am #

      Good question. It depends.

      Your publisher…the one publishing your book…will have their own set of rules to follow with regard to getting permissions.

      The publisher of the material you want to quote may or may not be your publisher. Let’s say you are being published by XYZ Publishing and the material you want to quote is also published by XYZ Publishing…you still need to go through the process for permissions and pay any requisite fee.

      If your book is published by XYZ you want them to protect your material from plagiarists and unapproved use. And you probably would like them to charge something for the use of your material.

      Not sure if that answered your question.

  9. Scott Rutherford November 26, 2018 at 11:23 am #

    Thanks for sharing this. Very timely for me, as I’ve recently finished a novel that includes several instances in which characters sing well-known (and copyrighted) songs. Most of the uses are brief snippets (and in some cases just titles) but good to have a better idea of where the lines are.

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 12:01 pm #

      Scott,
      You’ve revealed a common issue for novelists. The song title is fine. No permission needed. But the lyrics? Another issue all together.

      For example, Microsoft paid The Rolling Stones $3 million to use a one minute clip of the song “Start me up” for their Windows 95 campaign.
      https://youtu.be/5VPFKnBYOSI

  10. claire o'sullivan November 26, 2018 at 11:38 am #

    Good info as always. Thank you!

    I checked in my 1984 Zondervan version of the NIV and it says up to 1000 words without permission–back then. However on the Zondervan website(s) it says 500 words.

    In my fiction I would never use that amount of Scripture, so I think that’s pretty safe.

    Here’s Tyndale on a few translations: https://www.tyndale.com/permissions. I think a good search on the web will reveal what needs permission. I don’t like quoting Scripture verbatim because it isn’t realistic to fictional non-Christian characters. However, I do make sure that plain English is totally in line with Scripture, and mention by one character that it’s paraphrased.

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 11:56 am #

      Quoting a Bible translation is a little different. As you indicated, each translation has a different set of rules for quotations. It is unlikely that a novel would exceed quoting 500 verses of a particular translation.

      I write about Bible quotations here:
      https://stevelaube.com/quote-the-bible-carefully/

      • claire o'sullivan November 26, 2018 at 12:43 pm #

        Oh, excellent. The article on Bible quotations earlier gave me the error 404 message. It finally loaded.

        I noted that the New KJV has a copyright.

        And, I agree with so many of the posts, one would think writing Scripture in fiction/non-fiction would be an open door for someone to fall in love (or back in love) with the Word of God. It (and I could be wrong, ok I am often wrong) that there is some type of copyright competition. I understand copyright in fiction and non-fiction but Scripture, that is a conundrum for those who want to share the Gospel (I don’t recall Jesus saying anything about his disciples quoting His words or the OT).

        • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 1:12 pm #

          It is an old argument I heard back when I was a bookseller. One lady pointedly said to me at the cash register, “You shouldn’t make money on God’s Word.” Then admitted when she had a bookstore she sold Bibles for what she paid for them. I asked, “How long were you in business?” She replied, “One year.” My answer, “This store has been in business for over 20.”

          The New King James cost a reported one million dollars to develop. (that may be double the actual cost, but I don’t doubt the fact it cost a lot to create.)That cost has to come from somewhere.

          Some will say, “But the old KJV isn’t under copyright.” That may be true in America. But in England the copyright is held by the Crown.

          Biblegateway.com has a very well written statement about Bible copyrights:
          https://support.biblegateway.com/hc/en-us/articles/360001399128-Why-are-modern-Bible-translations-copyrighted-

  11. E. Piotrowicz November 26, 2018 at 12:23 pm #

    This is helpful. I’m wondering, beyond the question of borrowed words, what are we to do with borrowed ideas? As a doctoral student, I was required to take intensive trainings on plagiarism, and I learned that there is more than one kind. We’re talking about direct quotation here, but what about plagiarism of ideas? Is this only punishable in the academic community, or can I be held accountable even in fiction for following lines of thought and inquiry that I didn’t personally start without giving proper acknowledgement to those who came before? I can’t say I’ve ever seen novel with a lit review to explain how its premise evolved from the work of others. That would be silly and impossible to quantify. I guess my question is, are there concrete boundaries on borrowing ideas in fiction? And if so, what are they?

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2018 at 1:18 pm #

      You have touched on the whole universe of Intellectual Property Law.

      Think of all the lawsuits in the tech world over one group copying the idea of another and not paying for its use.

      Apple infamously sued Microsoft for the use of the graphic interface (called Windows) saying it copied the idea from the Mac.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Computer,_Inc._v._Microsoft_Corp.

      In the book world I know of situations where an author claims their idea for a novel was stolen and given to a bestselling author. Rather hard to prove.

      If you are curious there have been a number of attempts to sue JK Rowling saying she stole the Harry Potter idea.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_disputes_over_the_Harry_Potter_series

      • claire o'sullivan November 26, 2018 at 3:14 pm #

        !

        I should sue Apple for stealing my idea on computer software to help medical students. I even had it written up. Down. Whatever. Long before they came up with theirs.

        Ah, such is life. God’s plans for my future are better than a past that could have ruined my walk with the Lord.

  12. Ann Knowles November 27, 2018 at 6:49 am #

    There is no “big red button” on my screen. My question is: When articles are published all over the news by all types of media, how much can we quote? Are we allowed to retell the stories in our own words? I know Cecil Murphey used stories in his books from news sources and other published books, but some publishers will not accept that idea.

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