Can You Use that Quote or Excerpt in Your Book Without Permission?

By Leslie Miller

In case you missed October’s phenomenal copyright workshop, I wanted to share the post I wrote about it for my blog. To sum it up in one pithy sentence, copyright is complicated.

Now, I don’t know if it’s always been like this, or the internet has changed things, but you can’t go five paragraphs these days without finding a quote from someone else’s book, article, or speech.

Quotes are cool. They are pithy and frequently say things in a concise and powerful way that we can’t. And quoting an expert lends more credibility to the points we are trying to make, doesn’t it?

But you can find yourself in serious legal or financial hot water if you use them illegally.

I just finished the edit of a non-fiction book that was loaded with quotes and excerpts. After discussion with the author, we wound up removing most of them. She’d been planning on adding another 40 quotes into the mix, but now will not do so. When I asked her where she got these 40 quotes, she replied, “They’re all over the internet.”

And therein lies the problem. Or one of the many problems, to be more accurate.

The internet is rife with unattributed quotes, inaccurately attributed quotes, and quotes that have been used in clear violation of someone else’s copyright, leading every author to now believe they can do the same thing. I think you can get away with a lot online, but a print or eBook that you’ll be selling is a whole other kettle of typos.

For example, there’s a quote that I’ve seen around for years. Here’s just part of it:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

Are you familiar with that one? The first few times I came across it, somehow it was inaccurately attributed to Nelson Mandela, of all people. Can you imagine his august personage uttering the phrase, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

The actual quote comes from author Marianne Williamson’s bestseller, A Return To Love.

(Did I get permission to use it here? No. I’m operating under the concept of fair use, which we’ll discuss more a bit farther along.)

How foolish would you feel if you used this lovely quote in your book, only to find out you attributed it to the wrong person entirely?

How justifiably irate might a publisher be to see their copyrighted work show up in your book, without permission and attributed to the wrong person?

They might not sue you, but don’t be surprised to get a furious letter threatening just that, and asking that you either remove the offending passage immediately, or pay such and such amount of money.

There is such a thing as fair use, where you are allowed to use others’ words without permission of the copyright holder, but it falls into quite a grey area. There are four different criteria the courts would take into consideration–should the copyright holder decide to sue you.

Misinformation about this subject abounds. On some websites, I saw people saying fair use would be up to 50 words of an article or 300 words of a book. Really? There is no wording like this in the copyright law.

And if you are pulling quotes, facts, or excerpts off a web article, there might be no documentation as to where the original information came from. No link back to the source. Nothing.

So should you use it or not? I’d say that if you are comfortable with propagating the spread of what may very well be misinformation, then you could use it on your website or blog. That’s entirely up to you, as is whether or not you pay your taxes or intend to purchase Obamacare.

But don’t kid yourself that it’s legal. Or even that it’s accurate, or possible to substantiate no matter how much research you do.

If you are starting a book and planning on using quotes and excerpts, get permissions. In most cases they are not that hard to obtain and don’t always cost money. Many publishers have a form on their websites where you can submit a request for permission.

Now here’s a radical idea…

Why not interview experts and get original quotes for your book?

Or, if it’s not that kind of book, why not improve your writing so that others will be pulling pithy quotes out of your material? I bet if we read A Return to Love, we will not find Ms. Williamson quoting everyone under the sun, because she is her own expert and a fantastic wordsmith.

And here’s another idea…

If you are writing non-fiction, or even if you write articles for the web and love quotes, I highly recommend this book written by Joyce and Dan Miller:  Copyright Clearance for Creatives. Joyce was one of the presenters in the workshop I just took, and this lady really knows her stuff.

You can download a free chapter addressing copyright misconceptions here: Myths.

And last but not least, for all you busy authors who need some help with this kind of thing. The Millers run a business called The Copyright Detective, and they can advise you on permissions and even contact the correct people to get the permissions you need.

Please don’t dump it on your editor. She will gnash her teeth and curse the day you were born. Instead, educate yourselves. It’s too late for my author to get permissions, because she’s hoping to have the book in hand by December 1. But I wasted a lot of time trying to chase down sources for many of her quotes, only to have to remove them in the end, and that’s going to be on her dime.

Copyright, including your own, is important!

leslie-miller-headshotLeslie Miller is a freelance book editor and ghost writer. She offers creative collaboration, attention to detail, and a passion for helping to make your book “unputdownable!”

Visit LeslieMillerWordsmith to find out more about Leslie’s Novel Nurturing and editing services including developmental, content and copyediting. Free eBook coming soon: Rocking Your Second Draft! Revision Techniques for Newbie Novelists

Contact her at 303.842.1985 or [email protected]