When Do You Need to Secure Permissions?

by Andrea Costa Photography

Andrea Costa Photography / Flickr

With more authors publishing independently than ever, I’m hearing more questions about permissions. Unfortunately, it’s a tough issue to navigate without having an experienced editor or agent to guide you.

Permissions is all about seeking permission to quote or excerpt other people’s copyrighted work within your own. This means contacting the copyright owner of the work (or their publisher or agent), and requesting permission to use the work. Most publishers have a formal process that requires a signed contract. Often, you are charged a fee for the use, anywhere from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.

An Important Preface to This Discussion

Quoting or excerpting someone else’s work falls into one of the grayest areas of copyright law. For understandable reasons, you might be seeking a “rule” to apply to reduce your risk or reduce time spent worrying about it.

Therefore, the biggest “rule” that you’ll find—if you’re searching online or asking people—is: “Ask explicit permission for everything beyond X.”

What constitutes “X” depends on whom you ask. Some people say 300 words. Some say one line. Some say 10% of the word count.

But you must never forget: there is no legal rule stipulating what quantity is OK to use without seeking permission. (Major legal battles have been fought over this question, but there is STILL no black-and-white rule.)

So any rules you find are based on a general institutional guideline or a person’s experience, as well as their overall comfort level with the risk involved in directly quoting/excerpting work. That’s why opinions and guidelines vary so much.

The other problem is that once you start asking for permission (to reduce your risk), that gives publishers (or copyright owners) the opportunity to ask for money or refuse to give permission, even in cases where the use would actually be considered fair. So you can get taken advantage of if you’re overly cautious. See the Catch-22?

It’s very difficult to advise on these matters in a general blog post, or even through personal e-mails, because each and every instance of quoting/excerpting may have a different answer as to whether you need permission or whether it would be considered fair use.

There is no rule you can apply, only principles. So I hope to provide some clarity on those principles in this post.

When do you NOT need to seek permission?

  • When the work is in the public domain. This isn’t always a simple matter to determine, but any work published before 1923 is in the public domain. Some works published after 1923 are also in the public domain. Read this guide from Stanford about how to determine if a work is in the public domain.
  • When simply mentioning the title or author of a work. You do not need permission to mention the title of someone’s work. It’s like citing a fact.
  • When you are stating unadorned facts. If you copy a list of the 50 states in the United States, you are not infringing on anyone’s copyright. Those are unadorned facts.
  • When you are linking to something. Linking does not require permission.
  • When the work is licensed under Creative Commons. If this is the case, you should see this prominently declared on the work itself. For instance, the book Mediactive is licensed under Creative Commons, and so are many sites and blogs.
  • When you abide by fair use guidelines. If you’re only quoting a few lines from a full-length book, you are likely within fair use guidelines, and do not need to seek permission. BUT this is a gray area.

When should you seek permission?

When you use copyrighted material in such a way that it cannot be considered fair use. In such cases, crediting the source does not remove the obligation to seek permission. It is expected that you always credit your source regardless of fair use; otherwise, you are plagiarizing.

I’ve written a separate post explaining the process for seeking permissions, with a sample request form.

A Brief Explanation of Fair Use

There are four criteria for determining fair use, which sounds tidy, but it’s not. These criteria are vague and open to interpretation. Ultimately, when disagreement arises over what constitutes fair use, it’s up to the courts to make a decision.

The four criteria are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use (e.g., commercial vs. not-for-profit/educational). If the purpose of your work is commercial (to make money), that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly in violation of fair use. But it makes your case less sympathetic if you’re borrowing a lot of someone else’s work to prop up your own commercial venture.
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work. Facts cannot be copyrighted. For that reason, more creative or imaginative works generally get the strongest protection.
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the entire quoted work. The law does not offer any percentage or word count here that we can go by. That’s because if the portion quoted is considered the most valuable part of the work, you may be violating fair use. That said, most publishers’ guidelines for authors offer a rule of thumb; at the publisher I worked at, that guideline was 200-300 words from a book-length work in a teaching/educational context.
  4. the effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the quoted work. If your use of the original work affects the likelihood that people will buy the original work, you can be in violation of fair use. That is: If you quote the material extensively, or in some other way that the original source would no longer be required, then you’re possibly affecting the market for the quoted work. (Don’t confuse this criteria with the purpose of reviews or criticism. If a negative review would dissuade people from buying the source, this is not related to the fair use discussion in this post.)

To further explore what these four criteria mean in practice, be sure to read this excellent article by attorney Howard Zaharoff that originally appeared in Writer’s Digest magazine:  “A Writers’ Guide to Fair Use.”

Does this apply to use of copyrighted work on websites, blogs, digital mediums, etc?

Technically, yes, but attitudes tend to be more lax. When bloggers (or others) aggregate, repurpose, or otherwise excerpt copyrighted work (whether it originates online or offline), they typically view such use as “sharing” or “publicity” for the original author rather than as a copyright violation, especially if it’s for noncommercial or educational purposes. I’m not talking about wholesale piracy here, but about extensive excerpting or aggregating that would not be considered OK otherwise. In short, it’s a controversial issue.

Note: You do not need permission to link to a website.

A note about song titles, movie titles, names, etc.

You do not need permission to include song titles, movie titles, TV show titles—any kind of title—in your work. You can also include the names of places, things, events, and people in your work without asking permission. These are facts.

Permissions for song lyrics and poetry

Because songs and poems are so short, it’s dangerous to use even 1 line without asking for permission, even if you think the use could be considered fair. However, it’s fine to use song titles, poem titles, artist names, band names, movie titles, etc.

For more help

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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  1. Pingback: When Do You Need to Secure Permissions? | Jane Friedman | Get Paid To Write Online | Scoop.it

  2. This is why all our T. S. Poetry Press works are Creative Commons. We *want* people to celebrate and share our words. 

    Now, does that mean we want someone to upload a whole book of ours and sell it under a different title, as is happening in some cases through Kindle? Of course not. 

    But it is an honor to be quoted from, even whole poems. And if a speaker wants to copy a chapter of one of our books and use it in a *paid* presentation, without having to seek permission, why not? 

  3. What about stock photos or art work , that one might want to use? I have attempted on a number of occasions to contact the source given on the art work, and have yet to receive an answer.

    • Typically, you have to pay licensing or royalty fees for any photos/art you want to use in your own work. If you can’t contact the rights holder for an image or artwork, and it’s not in the public domain, then you cannot use it in your own work. You need explicit permission.

      However, more and more images are being issued by rights holders under Creative Commons rather than traditional copyright. To search for such images, you can look under the “Creative Commons” category at Flickr, or simply run a Google search for “images creative commons.”

      Side note: If you find “rights-free images,” that doesn’t mean they are free to use. It simply means they are usually cheaper to pay for and overall less of a hassle.

    • I’ve been confused by this too. On sites like Corbis.com or Istockphoto.com, how do you know which ones you have to pay for (to use for a book cover) or not?  Do you still need permission to use photos off of sites like these?

      • Yes! You have to pay for all photos on those sites. Corbis and iStockPhoto are meant to generate money off any kind of use, especially commercial use like a book cover.

  4. My question is about the epigraphs I’d like to use to begin each of the four sections of my novel. They are quotes of 100 words or less, excerpted from copyrighted book-length works. Is citing them enough? My purpose is not educational, as I hope to make money, but this is fiction, lol. I’m thinking of  all the NF quotes that began the chapters of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees”–would she have paid for all those? Thanks, Jane!

      • I have to differ with this!  I’ve written an SF novel in which I use epigraphs on every chapter from mostly poetry and some fiction and one work of non-fiction.  When I wrote the book, I intended to go through normal publishing channels, where the publisher would do all the copyright work.  Then I decided to self-publish, so I embarked on doing the work myself.  I found numerous sites saying that epigraph use usually falls under fair use, but when I started querying publishers, not a one of them would grant my use of the material under fair use.  It had to pay for all but probably one of them.  And in one case the holder of the print rights is not the same as the holder of the ebook rights, so if I want to put the book on Kindle, say, then I’ll have to pay yet another publisher!  So don’t assume you’re safe to use anything copyrighted under fair use!  However, it isn’t all that difficult to get the permission from most publishers (I decided Oxford U.P. was way too difficult to tackle and I opted to find a substitute quote from the public domain) – just be prepared to wait up to eight weeks for a response, to jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops (some of the forms are worse than income tax)  and to shell out quite a substantial amount of money, depending on the length of the quotations.

        Remember that some authors are partly under copyright and partly out of it.  Emily Dickinson, for example – some of her works weren’t published until 1929 – and the early works of Robert Frost are OK but nothing published after 1923.  Other sources to help you determine whether an author is under copyright are Google Books (if the work is free and you can read it online at the website, it’s public domain) and Wikisource (cited at the end of Wikipedia articles).  Also, everything at Bartleby.com is public domain, although their stance on copyright is quite puzzling.  Also there’s the Gutenberg Project.

        • Looking up fair use, out of curiosity, I found that it is clearly intended for nonfiction works. That means novelists would have to ask for permission, as Lorinda said.

          • First, to respond to C.S.: Fair use applies to ALL types of work. It is not restricted to nonfiction. Your source is wrong.

            Second, regarding what Lorinda said: Yes, if you contact a publisher, **of course** that’s the response you’re going to get!! It doesn’t mean they have a case, though.

            Without seeing the material you’re using, I can’t say whether you have a strong case for fair use. But I don’t know of a single publisher who won’t advocate you should ask for permission. Period.

            As far as print vs. electronic rights, if you DO need permission (and you’re not operating under fair use), then the contract or agreement you sign stipulates what mediums you’re covered under. It’s true you might need multiple agreements if there are multiple rights holders AND you are issuing in multiple editions/mediums.

          • Well, I’m not inclined to try to do things under the table, as it were, or try to wiggle out of doing things according to the law.  What’s the point of putting all that copyright notice on your book if nobody is going to pay any attention to it?  I certainly wouldn’t want people grabbing chunks of my writings and sticking them on anything they want!  If they asked me, I probably wouldn’t charge them anything, but I would just like to know what use is being made of the material.  So I wouldn’t go back and do anything any differently from what I’ve done.  I might have a “strong case for fair use,” but certainly to sue the publisher for fair use would cost me a lot more than paying his fee!

          • Just to be sure there’s no confusion: fair use IS part of the law (just as much as copyright is part of the law), and claiming fair use doesn’t mean you’re trying to do things under the table.

            In my opinion, when it comes to very minimal excerpts (which are usually the case with epigraphs), it’s about how cautious you want to be, as well as how firm a grasp you have on what constitutes fair use.

          • My sources, (two, actually) were the US copyright office and Nolo. I’m not going to argue with the copyright office. “Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports.” I don’t see anything there that would include novels.

          • They’re not giving you an exhaustive list, and they can’t possibly cover every scenario. For instance, parody also falls under fair use, and parody is certainly a form of fiction.

  5. Jane,
    I love your articles!  You post the most helpful information!
    I’m wondering if one must obtain permission to use the name of a place of business (for example: a restaurant or grocery store) in one’s book?
    Thank you!

  6. In my mystery, the protagonist volunteers to read aloud to a children’s classroom in an elementary school. I have her saying that she’s reading the book “Freckle Juice.” I was thinking last night about whether that is okay. I didn’t mention the author Judy Blume nor do I have any excerpts from the book. However, I was thinking about revising and having the protag read an excerpt. I much prefer using details. If this whole situation is going to be problematic when I send the manuscript to an agent, maybe I should just be vague and not say the name of a book? I don’t want it to appear I don’t know what I’m doing regarding copyright. :)

    • You can say the name of the book, definitely, but you’ll have to be careful when using an excerpt. A line or two is probably OK, but if it’s much longer, you’ll have to seek permission.

  7. Thanks so much. I’m wondering about using a quote from a person famous or otherwise in a book. I’m working on a book in which at the beginning of each chapter I would like to begin it with a quote. Is that fair use? Does it need to be credited somewhere in the book?

  8. I am wondering about recipes from cookbooks. Would I need permission to include exact recipes or recipe modifications? My intent in using them at all on my blog is, in part, to provide recognition and possibly business for the authors in question. But it sure would be more helpful for my readers to see the actual recipe rather than just a reference to the book.

    • Recipes fall into a gray area. The recipe itself is generally considered a “fact,” and not protected under the law. However, any description/interpretation that accompanies that recipe can be protected.

      Generally, when reviewing a cookbook, offering a recipe sample is fine and expected.

      • HI, I’d like to create a website that displays recipes and I would sell the ingredients for the recipe.  In this instance, would I have any copywright issues when using the recipes.  Could I possibly change the name of the recipes and be safe? 

        • The description/interpretation provided with the recipe is protected. Changing the title doesn’t change the fact the description is under the copyright of someone or some publisher.

  9. Does this mean that the photos  and other images I’ve been snagging via Google Images for my blog are verboten? I always caption them with the source from which they come. 

    My blog doesn’t even run ads at this point, but I’m not ruling it out in the future. 

    • It greatly varies. Just because an image can be found online doesn’t mean it isn’t rights protected. You probably are infringing (occasionally and technically), but this sort of use is widespread online, and it’s rare to get in any trouble aside from a takedown request.

      In the future, you should consider only snagging images that you can confirm are licensed under Creative Commons or otherwise fine for sharing.

  10. Great post, Janes, thanks for sharing it. Might you know anyone who could help me with a general permissions query? I’m hoping to quote (at length) Brontë poems that were unpublished in their lifetimes but later published by others and I’m not sure if they would count as public domain.

    Thanks again for the post!

    • It would all depend on the year of publication. Anything published before 1923 is in the public domain. After that point, you’ll have to do your research to see if copyright is still in place.

  11. So helpful! We are running into this with Dictionary definitions and we definitely do not want to do something that would break copyright laws. Thanks for this!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  12. Thank you, Jane for this clarification. Well, it’s clearer than it was for me.  I’ve been trying to find information about copyrighting.  I’m interested in using poems from other poets on my web site, giving credit, of course and it looks like I’m going to have to contact the publisher to do so.  Marjorie

    • Yes! Sometimes you can try to sidestep the publisher and ask the poet/author directly for permission (and get better/quicker results), but either way, you need permission.

  13. I’ve actually referenced Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book “Simple Abundance” a few times in my book, and did write for permission but have not heard back. Should this hold up my publishing? I’ve referenced 4 quotes from her book.

  14. I’m pretty sure I know what you’re going to say, but am going to ask anyway.
    My adult character Liz, in trying to break the ice with extremely shy
    teenager Lucy, talks about some of her favorite scenes from the Harry
    Potter books and movies when she sees Lucy carrying one of the books. She might do something like use the “Alohamora” door opening spell once, in order to make Lucy and her sister laugh.
    Would Jo Rowling fry me for this? I don’t at all mind getting permission, but have no money to spare.

  15. Fabulous post, and very timely for me. My question is about giving attribution. I’m seeking permissions for a self-published author. He’s using a poem, a short song lyric, some pictures,  a couple New Yorker cartoons, and excerpts from another author’s book. So far I’ve gotten permission for everything except the poem, some free and some for a fee. My question is, how do we credit all these different sources? I’ve seen song lyrics credited on the title page. Is this where all the attributions should go? Or perhaps a page thanking the various authors/songwriters/publishers?

    • Yes, you should include a page or section in the book devoted to listing all permissions. Every publisher/author you’ve received permission from probably gave you a credit line that they want to appear in the book—that explains who holds the copyright. That’s what you put on the permissions page. E.g., a credit might read, “Excerpt from BOOK TITLE by AUTHOR NAME. Copyright YEAR by AUTHOR NAME. Published by PUBLISHER NAME.”

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  17. Brava! Ever a treat to witness your brain working, Jane. From conference question to useful “boil-down” in the blink of an eye. Always sage. Always timely. Always articulate. Always concise. You. Know. How. To. Ship. Ship. Ship! :-)

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  19. This is all extremely helpful and I’m going to bookmark it for future use.  However, I’m curious why it is ok to quote a line or two of poetry or from a book under fair use laws but you ALWAYS have to get permission to use any song lyrics.

    • In my opinion, you should always seek permission for both. But if there’s more perceived permissiveness with poetry, it might be due to differences between the publishing industry (and/or literary community) and the music industry.

  20. I have a question – I would like to publish an e-book  (for profit), and in one of the chapters use a slogan from a popular baby company, along with the wording from 2 of their commercials.  Is this something I would need to get permission for? I checked their website but could not find anything, and looked all over the internet but could not find information on this type of permission.

    • Slogans cannot be copyrighted, so that would be OK. As far as the commercial, I’m less certain because I haven’t seen or heard of a case involving that type of work.You’re probably OK if it’s used in an educational context.

  21. If you want to include quotes from people you have interviewed yourself, do you need any legal paperwork (do they have to sign anything) giving permission to be in the book? I have a short questionnaire I handed out where women wrote responses down. They knew it was for my book, but I do not have actual signatures. They were told to just write their first name and last initial on the questionnaire. 

    • You’re fine without their signature, as long as you didn’t interview them under false pretenses (i.e., they didn’t understand why they were being interviewed).

  22. This is amazingly helpful–and, sort of ironically, free.  Thank you for your help.

    A little off the subject, but what about art images used for a lecture?  I assume it’s OK in an educautional setting, such as a college or for a cultural institution, but what about doing the same lecture (for profit), in a private setting, like someone’s home?

    • Technically, you should ask for permission if the image is not available under Creative Commons license—or if it is otherwise not clearly available, for free, for nonprofit use, even in an educational setting.

      However, we all know what the reality is. (pause) That said, I would not publicly distribute any presentation or lecture that used images that I wasn’t confident I had permission to use.

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  25. Wow! Great information here. Question: I’m running an online membership series which includes a “book study.” The ladies are encouraged to purchase and read the books obviously; there’s a link to Amazon at my site. I was planning to use quotes from the books in my downloadable printables as questions/thinking points … Do I need to get permission first? Thanks so much!

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    • Just as you would contact a book publisher about permissions for a book, for song lyrics you contact the music publisher. It’s very unlikely you’d be able to get permission from either the songwriter or the recording artist.

  27. A comment on song lyrics: I assume it’s fair use for lines from hymns written 100 years ago.

    Question about quotes used in a book: If I use many short quotes – 2-5 lines each, but use a dozen or so quotes from the same book – does the total number of words need to fit in the 200-300 range or does that apply to a single long quote?

    Your answers and all the questions on this site are very helpful.

    • Yes! Any work that old (whether lyrics or not) would have fallen into the public domain.

      And great question about cumulative word count. While word count itself isn’t the sole determining factor of fair use, you should definitely be looking at the total number of words, not the amount of words used in a single instance of quoting.

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  29. Do you need approval to use the name of a song, movie, actor’s name, or names of products that are or were for sale, in a book you’re writing?
    Also do you need approval to use a quote like example: “Go ahead make my day” that became popular from a movie and is all over the internet?

  30. How about using film stills as artwork for a book cover?  I’m thinking of using a film still from an old movie (about 1961) as the backdrop for the book cover. 

    According to the University of Chicago Press (http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/copyright.html), “Frame captures, also called film stills, are generally considered to fall in the realm of fair use for scholarly publishing.” 

    Fair use would be great.  But my concern is that while my book (a minor book to be published by a minor press) is scholarly, the press is strictly speaking a commercial venture, and the text of the book is not “about” the movie and does not refer to the movie at all.  It will definitely NOT impinge on the commercial value of the movie (in fact, might enhance it).   The book is about the history of early Christianity, and I thought I’d borrow something from one of the innumerable movies about Jesus.

  31. my wife is writing a book, its a how-to-book on applying to college. She wants to quote some info from a the College Board website, just a few lines, on what colleges look for. Is this ok. She also wants to include the link to the college board website, are there any problems with this? are there issues of trademark infringement?  In general in a  how-to-type book, are there issues of trademark or copyright just in citing domain names/websites ?

  32. Does one need permission to mention an actual public event and/or trade show in a fictional work, such as a regular annual event ex: Republican National Convention, as an idea.


  33. I would like to include a short quote– 6 words– from Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction in my non-fiction book. I clearly state in my book “As Marcellus Wallace said in Pulp Fiction “I’m …… far from okay.””

    Do I need to get permission to use that quote?

    Thank you for the information.

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