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.”
A couple years ago a client wanted to extensively quote from one of his previous books (pretty much an entire chapter). But the previous book was published by a different publisher. His former publisher said that it would cost $3,000 to use his own words in the new publisher’s book – the licensing fee. No kidding. The former publisher was rightly concerned that the use of that material would suppress the future sales of that older title because key material would be found in the new book. So the author wrote the check and was able to quote his own words.
Another person asked:
In my book I use two lines from a song about how when we are together it is heaven on earth to make a point about the role of love in evangelism which might be considered repurposing the work for a new audience. I also use two lines from the theme song to “Cheers” to make a point about incarnational ministry and evangelism. It sounds to me like one or both of these could fall under “fair use.”
I would love to avoid paying licensing fees, as I am self publishing on a shoestring budget, but I don’t want to get sued either. Can you give me some clarification on how to determine “fair use”?
If you are quoting from song lyrics, any and all usage requires permission no matter the length. Back in 1995 Microsoft used the Rolling Stones line “start it up” with music in their campaign for Windows 95. Reportedly the fee to use those three words was well over a million dollars.
Last year a client wanted to use the lyrics of a famous song in her novel. She wrote the artist who was thrilled to get the request. But then the singer revealed the dirty secret. The singer does not control the copyright to the songs they sing. The composer of the lyrics owns the song and they likely have a publisher who manages the permissions. So my client had to write to the publisher, which took some doing to discover. Then after waiting for six weeks got a letter asking for more information. Then the client called me.
I suggested the author simply rewrite the scene and avoid using the lyrics entirely. Saying the name of the song was enough (it was a very famous song). And there is no penalty for naming the song title.
Always err on the side of caution. The last thing you want it a “cease and desist” letter or a lawsuit.
We have a page on our site for Copyright Resources if you want to research this further. (https://stevelaube2.wpengine.com/resources/copyright-resources/)