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.


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

  1. Chris Storm April 24, 2019 at 5:13 am #

    Thanks for this important info! Here’s something I do every time I read a book: I keep a pad and pen beside me and jot down single words that are interesting or different from my usual vocab choices. A single word, on the other hand, is free!

  2. Tery Whalin April 24, 2019 at 5:28 am #


    Thank you for this excellent post about a topic which is often confusing to many writers. You and I have been down this path many times with our writing. I will be pointing this article out to others.

    Straight Talk From the Editor

  3. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D April 24, 2019 at 5:29 am #

    Wow, Bob. That’s incredible. I mean, you were around before the printing press? That was in 1439, so you are…how old?

    Seriously, thanks for the heads-up!

    • Name* April 24, 2019 at 6:33 am #

      Some days I don’t feel 600 years old. Other days I do.

  4. Jennifer Mugrage April 24, 2019 at 6:01 am #

    “Printing press was a new technology” made me smile. My boys and I are studying that innovation this week. It was truly a world-changing time of history.

    It’s hard to believe the world that Bob describes above is the same world where people can get on Twitter and ruin one another’s reputations with impunity.

    I do have a question: Do these rules apply to blog posts, particularly posts where we are summarizing or participating in a scientific, literary, theological, or some other kind of debate? One of the best ways to engage with someone is to quote their exact words. I cite, but do I really need to get written permission too?

    • Bob Hostetler April 24, 2019 at 6:34 am #

      “Electronically” published is still published, so the “fair use” standards apply there, too.

  5. A. Robertson April 24, 2019 at 6:20 am #

    This may seem like a silly question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Are there any rules about referring to people in one’s writing? I want to refer to a popular cultural icon in one of my works, but I know this person’s image is trademarked–not sure if it is, or even can, be copyrighted. Is referring to this person a safe thing to do?

    • Bob Hostetler April 24, 2019 at 6:38 am #

      It’s not a silly question. A reference to a name or a trademark (or both) is not an infringement (though you should be careful, in the case of a trademark, to use it accurately–for example, “Kleenex,” capitalized, is a brand name; “tissue” or “facial tissue” are the generic terms).

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 24, 2019 at 6:42 am #

    I used a quote within my book
    and it came back to haunt me.
    The Federales took a look
    and came, but not for tea.
    The judge called me Pirate Scum
    and became quite emotional,
    for another dreadful thing I’d done
    was write a CHRISTIAN devotional.
    I have mentioned Mongo, right?
    My cellmate in the pen?
    His company’s a sure delight
    and he can almost count to ten.
    But there are surely far worse fates;
    I like orange, and I’m liftin’ weights.

  7. Wendy April 24, 2019 at 7:35 am #

    This is helpful and timely information. I raised the question last week about acquiring song permissions, during a webcast with a publisher. Their answers were good but succinct. Your explanations help clarify the permissions issue for me. Thank you.

  8. janis hutchinson April 24, 2019 at 7:37 am #

    Enjoyed your comment on Fair Use.
    Question: On the copyright page in my new (WIP) book, I list all the different versions of Bible verses I use, their publishers, copyright date, etc. I’ve copied the format and wording from other authors’ books who are using different Bible version.

    However, I have not requested permission from each of those Bible publishers (although I have for other author quotes in my book). Can I assume that a traditional publisher will already have those permissions from Bible publishers automatically in place, and I don’t have to do that?

    • Bob Hostetler April 24, 2019 at 7:48 am #

      Like nearly everything else touching copyright, Janis, “it depends.” Each Bible publisher has a different number of verses that you may use without written permission (for example, from the Biblica website: The NIV® and NIrV® may be quoted in any form (written, visual, electronic or audio) up to and inclusive of five hundred (500) verses without the express written permission of the publisher, providing the verses quoted do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for more than 25 percent (25%) or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted. For additional rights and permission usage on the NIV® and NIrV® Bible, please contact Biblica). Best case scenario, you make sure you’re within the terms of each version’s guidelines.

    • Carol Ashby April 24, 2019 at 8:12 am #

      You can find the publisher’s preferred format for copyright statements at the Blue Letter Bible. Search a verse in any version, click on the reference (chapter:verse) for one of the verses displayed, click on the Bibles tab, and 24 different translation choices will be offered. The copyright info is linked there for each translation. Here’s a link to the screen for the ESV John 3:16.

  9. Roberta Sarver April 24, 2019 at 8:09 am #

    Wow. When did life become so complicated? Take me back to the good ole days when we could just write!

    Seriously, though, your post was so helpful. Thanks.

  10. Sharon K Connell April 24, 2019 at 9:06 am #

    Well said, Bob. That’s why I avoid using any quotations unless they are from the Authorized King James Version of the Bible. I don’t use brand names, only suggest what I’m thinking of when I write. For example, I’ll say the character ate a crunchy oat cereal instead of using the well-known brand. On the other hand, I will name a car such as Mustang, Ford F150 truck or silver BMW when I need to in order to create a good picture for my reader. My male readers especially like to know what the characters are driving instead of saying car, truck, vehicle all the time. LOL

  11. Linda Riggs Mayfield April 24, 2019 at 11:11 am #

    How timely! Discerning the legal protections of words isn’t the only publication rights dilemma–for non-fiction writers, using someone else’s photos isn’t easy to legally navigate, either. Just yesterday I learned that there is a whole thing called “cemetery law.” Some cemeteries have rules against taking photos at all; some prohibit taking them without permission, even of your own family’s plots and gravestones; others allow it but charge a fee; and some that allow photos say they can’t be published without permission. Some cemeteries have rules but don’t enforce them, others attempt to strictly enforce them. Who knew?

    This impacts my WIP. The tiny Western Illinois rural community of Siloam became Siloam Springs, a mineral springs resort town that existed from the 1880s to the 1940s. Then the State of Illinois bought all the properties and on one day every building from the hotel down to the last outhouse and tool shed was auctioned off, and everything had to be removed. The area was turned into a state park. The last people who lived at Siloam are now past 70 and they don’t want its history to be lost. My husband’s great-grandfather owned the hotel, so I don’t want it lost, either. I’m working on putting the narrative into a book–not a genealogy, a good story.

    I started the FB web site Seeking Siloam Springs (SSS) to share and collect information from descendants of the Siloam families for the book. I clearly state that posting on the site gives me permission to use anything they post, but I still will get written releases to use the individual photos when I’m ready to put the book together, just to be safe. People have posted genealogical data, but also privately owned photos of ancestors, buildings, cemeteries and gravestones.

    Yesterday’s cemetery law discovery put a glitch in my publishing plan. Most SSS grave site photos are from little rural family cemeteries descendents maintain (or not), and no permissions are necessary, but three old cemeteries that have been photographed and posted on SSS are now within the state park. I don’t know if that park has rules about photography or not, but now I must find out. In addition, I’m certain some of the photos posted on SSS were from Find a Grave, a massive online repository of photos of grave sites and information about the deceased. It’s a go-to for genealogical researchers, but it is not the copyright owner of the photos posted on that site. If I can’t find each old cemetery and legally take my own photos, I’ll have to find the copyright owner of every Find-a-Grave-posted photo I want to use and get permission from the person who took the photo, even though they posted it on a completely public site. Sigh. Nothing is easy, is it? Thanks for the info and reminders!

  12. claire o'sullivan April 25, 2019 at 2:57 pm #


    So I see I must get a quote ‘permit’ for a famous line in Cool Hand Luke…

    For the Bible, Steve said, get permission from whatever publishing house. I paraphrase within the context when I do use Scripture. I ‘think’ that covers me there.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 25, 2019 at 3:15 pm #

      Claire, you raise an interesting point about using a line from a movie or book, because there are only a limited number of ways to say something.

      A fellow in California, Ashleigh Brilliant, published a line of postcards with short aphorisms and drawings, and was vociferous in suing anyone who published something that matched what he had written, even, if memory serves, in paraphrase.

      I’d be curious to learn of the law on this; if one can copyright a single phrase, then the modern writer’s task might be so hedged about by required permissions (and demanded royalties) that nothing worthwhile could ever be published.

      Bob, if you’re still listening out, what do you think?

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