Tag s | fair use

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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The Cost of Permissions vs. Fair Use

by Steve Laube

Every book contract has a clause that reads something along these lines:

If permission from others is required for publication of any material contained in the Work or for exercise of any of the rights conferred by this Agreement, Author shall obtain such permissions at Author’s expense, in a form acceptable to Publisher, and shall deliver such permissions to the Publisher as part of the complete manuscript of the Work. Permissions shall cover all territories, rights and editions covered by this Agreement.

In other words, if you use someone else’s book you must get permission or a license and cover the cost of that license. Be sure to consult with your agent or your publisher when securing the license to make sure it fully covers your project. Some places will charge for the first x number of copies and then require that you pay again if you sell more.

There are some projects where the permissions and licensing are a bit more complicated, especially with certain non-fiction books. For example, our clients Khaldoun Sweis and Chad Meister created Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Zondervan, 2012). This 560 page book compiles selections from over fifty primary sources that address various challenges in the history of Christian apologetics. The compilation includes a wide range from Saint Augustine to Saint Teresa of Avila and Blaise Pascal, to more recent and present day apologists such as C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig (our client), and Richard Swinburne. (Click here for a sample chapter PDF and the Table of Contents.) To include every chapter’s material where the source was still under copyright the authors had to pay for the permission. They used the advance monies received from the publisher to secure those licenses.

Another example is our client’s project The Kingdom of the Occult (Thomas Nelson, 2008). (Click here for a sample of this work.) This 752 page reference book by the late Walter Martin and co-edited by Jill Martin Rische and Kurt Van Gorden has over 3,000 citations in it. When some of the citations are collected they comprise a good portion of the original source material. So they had to secure the permissions and pay for the licenses to use that source material in their book.

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The Landmine of Fair Use

by Steve Laube

Remember you can use the big green button to the right of this blog to ask us questions. Recently we received two that were on the issue of fair use of other people’s writing.

What are the standard fair use rules for quotes of other published works? I used quotes in my book and my understanding was that if it was less than 250 words then you don’t need permission. But a friend is self-publishing and is concerned about quotations fearing she might get sued.

Always err on the side of getting permission.

One major publisher we work with has the author get permission for any quotations from a single source that is more than 25 words, collected (aggregate) across all uses of that source in the book. So if one quote is 10 words and 100 pages later is a quote for 20 words, the author must get permission.

Another requires the author get a written release from every person they interviewed and quoted in their non-fiction project. Including family members like your spouse, parents, or friends.

For more information read this excellent article by publishing attorney Kelly Way called “All’s Fair in Love and War – But Not in Copyright Law.”

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