As a nonfiction editor, I receive a lot of questions about permission guidelines for copyrighted material from writers working on both books and articles. I usually have a decent answer to most questions. However, I was thrilled when my colleague, Self-publishing expert Sue Collier, coauthor of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing,5th Edition, offered me this guest blog post on the topic. In this post, Sue answers most of the questions you might have in a detailed manner. In fact, I doubt you’ll have many questions left after you finish reading it.
Permission Guidelines for Using Copyrighted Material
By Sue Collier
If you’re writing a nonfiction book, your research will no doubt turn up passages or comments from other published works that you would like to use. What are the rules?
First, let’s discuss “fair use.” Using material without the need to obtain permission is called fair use. The Chicago Manual of Style says that “quotations should not be so long that they diminish the value of the work from which they are taken.” In the case of books, experts usually estimate you can use an aggregate of up to three hundred words freely as long as it includes attribution. If you quote just a paragraph from a book and mention the author and title, you don’t need to obtain permission. For magazine articles, fifty words is the maximum (that’s assuming it isn’t a five-hundred-word filler. Straight news articles from newspapers (not features) of any length can be safely used after three months. This does not include any article that is syndicated, under a byline, or individually copyrighted. Photographs, artwork, and cartoons will also require the permission of the copyright holder.
What Jack Heffron, former editorial director at Writer’s Digest Books, was quoted as saying: “BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), the national organizations that handle permissions for written reprints on song lyrics, will need to be contacted directly. If possible quote only a line or two in your work, which will put your quote within fair use, and you won’t need written permission.” SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers) is another one, primarily for Canada. The cost to reprint songs is usually higher than for poems, but don’t overlook the possibility of negotiating.
One way to circumvent copyright problems is to paraphrase what was said. Ideas are not copyrightable—only the specific words used to express them. Use good common sense and don’t take from another writer something you would resent being used if you were the author.
When in doubt, formally request permission to quote. Write the publisher stipulating the following in your request:
- The title and type of your book (i.e., nonfiction, novel, poetry)
- The estimated date of publication
- The title and author of the work you wish to quote
- The quoted work’s publication date
- The page(s) in the original work on which the desired material is located
- The total number of words or lines of poetry or song lyrics you wish to use
- A transcript or photocopy of the exact quotation (or the first and last few words if lengthy)
- A statement about the right to use it in “any and all editions’”
- A request for exactly how the copyright holder wishes the acknowledgment to read
Then be prepared to wait. And follow up. And wait. And follow up. Obtaining copyright permissions often takes several months, so handle your requests early in the creation process. If you have a large volume of permissions in the works, it would be wise to set up a control log so you know the status of each one. Also, code the letters in some way. For instance, note in a separate log the manuscript page(s) on which each piece of permissionable material will appear and from whom the permission will come, with the date you sent your original request. Then you’ll find it simpler to integrate the material into your manuscript and check off the item as received when each permission comes. And if too much time passes and one or another of the permissions still hasn’t come in, you’ll easily notice the fact and begin follow-up.
Often a fee will be involved. If so, you must decide if the quote is worth the asking price. Charges range from a token ten dollars or so to several hundred dollars. These fees are frequently negotiable, however, so don’t feel compelled to pay what is stated without trying to arrange a smaller amount. The copyright holder may charge you less if he feels it is for a publication with small distribution. (This is one of the few times to be humble.)
When you receive permission, pay attention to how the acknowledgment is requested. When this material appears in the book, you must cite the permission exactly as stipulated.
Sometimes the permission tables will be turned. Chances are after your book is out, publications, organizations, or individuals may want to reprint from it. This is good publicity. I generally say yes with two stipulations: (1) I limit the amount they can use (perhaps no more than three pages from an entire book), and (2) I require that they state where the material originated. Also insist your website and phone number be included.
Of course, some things are not protected by copyright. They are considered to be in the public domain. Material goes into public domain if its original copyright was not renewed or if copyright protection has been exhausted.
Government publications are also typically in the public domain, but this can be a gray area. If you plan to use extensive sections verbatim, it is wise to have a copyright search performed. When you are using just portions, no permission is needed, but it’s a good idea to cite the specific source. Also be aware that government publications often contain illustrations and other materials that are covered by individual copyrights. Read the fine print carefully.
(Portions of this article have been excerpted from The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition, by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier. Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.)
About the Author
Self-publishing expert Sue Collier is coauthor of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing,5th Edition (Writer’s Digest Books, 2010) and the forthcoming Jump Start Your Books Sales, 2nd Edition (Communication Creativity, 2012). She has been working with authors and small presses for more than two decades, providing writing, editing, production, and promotions work for hundreds of book projects. Visit her website and blog at Self-Publishing Resources.