Copyright and Trademarks… What’s Legal? PART 4: Can I Include Quotes in My Book?

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT an attorney, nor do I play one on the Internet. This article contains my experience and opinions only and is not intended to replace legal advice from an industry professional.

NOTE: This is Part 4 of this article series, Copyright and Trademarks… What’s Legal? I highly recommend you begin with Parts 1, 2 and 3 by clicking the links below:

Part 1: How to Protect Your Ideas

Part 2: How to Copyright Your Book

Part 3: Who Owns My Book Cover and Title?

Can I Include Quotes in My Book?

I’ve gotten this question from my coaching clients and students so many times, and rightfully so. Horror stories abound regarding authors who were sued over publishing copyrighted material, quoting song lyrics and quoting large chunks of the Bible in their books. The problem isn’t necessarily that they quoted the material, it’s that they’re selling (aka: PROFITING) from the work of someone else without that person’s permission.

It’s a lot easier to steal someone else’s idea and use it than to come up with your own. It’s easier to quote someone else who so eloquently said exactly what you want to say than to put the idea in your own words. And that’s normally called plagiarism.

“But…” you say, “There are tons of books that quote others, some books totally filled with nothing but quotes!” True. And books like those that quote without permission usually end up in front of a judge and jury. However, most books published traditionally or books you’d find in a bookstore got permission from the copyright holders or used the quoted material under the “law” of Fair Use or public domain.

What is Fair Use?

According to Copyright.gov, “Fair Use is a judge-created doctrine dating back to the nineteenth century and codified in the 1976 Copyright Act.” They even say, “Although the Fair Use Index should prove helpful in understanding what courts have to date considered to be fair or not fair, it is not a substitute for legal advice.” That’s right, that’s straight from the copyright office’s mouth. This means that if you choose to quote someone else’s words in your book and you’re not 100% positive it’s Fair Use or in the public domain, and you choose not to get written permission from he copyright holder of that material, it’s up to an individual judge whether you’re breaking the law or not.

And that judge may base their decision solely on whether their coffee is hot or cold. By not being sure or not getting permission, you’re opening yourself up to a lawsuit of which the outcome will be completely determined by what mood the judge is in… because “Fair Use” law is gray. Even if you’d win the suit under the laws of Fair Use or freedom of speech, it’s usually a lot cheaper to just stop using the material than it is to pay the court costs.

That being said, it’s a widely accepted rule that any quotes 50 words or less are considered Fair Use, even if that quote is not in the public domain (more on PD later). Now, if you publish a journal with nothing but quotes written by others and blank lines, you’re selling those quotes, not your own work. This means you’re profiting from someone else’s work and copyrighted material. That’s where you could get into deep trouble. However, if your book uses these quotes to enhance your own words and additions, you’ll be fine.

Click here to open this awesome Wikipedia article in a new window and read it later. 🙂

What about public domain?

Public domain means the original copyright holder’s rights have expired (death + 70 years) or have been forfeited. For example, have you heard of Thor, Sleeping Beauty, Superman, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel…? All those characters reside in the public domain. Remember when books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies suddenly flooded the market? Classics, reinvented? That’s because those classic texts fell into the public domain due to the author’s copyright expiring.

Also anything created by the U.S. Government resides in the public domain. That’s hundreds of thousands of articles, photos and quotes you can use without permission. There are a couple of third-party websites related to the government that contain copyrighted material, so always read the website’s public domain notice to make sure what you want to quote is free to use.

Here’s how you can tell if the material is in the public domain*:

  • If it’s published in the U.S. Before 1923.
  • If it’s published with a copyright notice from 1923-March 1, 1964 and copyright was not renewed.
  • If it’s published without a copyright notice (registration) from 1923-1977.
  • If the author has been dead for 70 years (in most non-U.S. countries).

*This is not a complete list and for guideline use only.

If you’re 100% sure the material you want to quote in your book is in the public domain, you’re free to use it without permission.

Click here to read more about the public domain on Wikipedia.

Click here for the ultimate complete Public Domain University course from the public domain expert himself, Tony Laidig.

When to seek permission…

In short? Any time you’re unsure. If you found the perfect quote in an Internet search, don’t assume it’s free to use without consequence. If you find a short quote on a quote website and use it to enhance your book, you’ll be fine. But if you fill a book with those quotes and add none of your own content (or it’s mostly comprised of those other quotes) and you’re not 100% sure those quotes are public domain, then get permission from each quote’s copyright holder.

And always, always, always get permission before you quote song lyrics or poetry! More lawsuits are filed for copyright infringement of song lyrics than anything else. It’s one thing to use a short phrase from a song in a free article as I did one of my blog posts. It’s another thing entirely to use even that same short phrase to make a point in a book for sale, for which you’ll make money. Many fiction authors get caught in this trap of using song lyrics in their books, only to painfully discover later what they did was illegal.

So if you’re writing fiction, get permission for those song lyrics. Always.

Is anything not copyrightable?

Absolutely! The following list is available for anyone to use for anything they wish, including books, without permission because these things are not covered by copyright:

  • Titles (including book titles, subtitles, movie titles, article titles, etc., unless it’s a book series title that’s trademarked)
  • Names (people, places, etc.)
  • Short phrases and slogans
  • Familiar symbols (like a stop sign shape)
  • Numbers (you know, 1, 2, 3, etc.)
  • Ideas
  • Facts (like dates, you know, that boring stuff you were forced to learn in History class)
  • Processes and systems (unless there’s a patent in place)
  • Government documents, websites and photos
  • Anything the original creator donated to the public domain or creative commons

Keep in mind while the above list usually are not copyrightable and therefore free to use, they may still be protected under trademark or patent law. So do your homework!

Leave your thoughts in a comment below… Then click here to continue reading the final installment of this article series, Copyright and Trademarks… What’s Legal? Part 5: What to Do About Copyright Infringement.

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  • Self-Publishing Takes Forever! Here's Why. - A Smarter Mom
    May 13, 2017

    […] I read Kristen Joy’s post about keeping quotes legal, so there’s another item on the self-publishing checklist for me: do word count on all […]

    Reply
  • Update on the Book - A Smarter Mom
    May 13, 2017

    […] I read Kristen Joy’s post about keeping quotes legal, so there’s another item on the checklist for me: do word count on all […]

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  • Judy Helm Wright
    March 19, 2017

    Hello from beautiful Montana,

    this is coming in divine timing as we are re-releasing and adding to some of our previous books. We had added quotes and now realize we need to tred lightly.

    Kristen, it was my understanding that we could quote from an article or work as we did not quote over 10% of the article and we give credit. Is this correct?

    Glad we have re-connected.

    Judy Helm Wright—Author/Publisher & Intuitive Wise Woman

    Reply
    • Kristen Joy
      March 24, 2017 Judy Helm Wright

      Hi Judy! As long as your quote is under 50 words it falls within fair use. I’d still contact the copyright holder for permission if it’s over 50 words, and of course always credit the source, as you’re already doing. 🙂

      Reply
  • Michael Broujos
    February 26, 2017

    Kristen thank you for excellent guidelines that will keep us from trouble and bring us great Joy. Grateful and Respectfully ( Michael G Brouzoz pen name)

    Reply
  • Jean dennie
    February 19, 2017

    Hi,
    This is good material; very informative. I am in the process of writing my first christian book, and I will be using quotes from the NIV & KJV translations. How do I obtain permission if necessary to use scriptures from the bible?

    Thanks much for your response.

    Reply
  • Tazeem Jamal
    February 10, 2017

    wow !! What a comprehensive list & article of awesome info !!! THANK YOU, so much !!!
    Tazeem 🙂

    Reply
  • Julie Ryan
    February 6, 2017

    Can one use a satirical video and apply it to a different ridiculous politician in another country?
    Better or worse to give the original comedian’s name?

    Reply
    • Kristen Joy
      February 6, 2017 Julie Ryan

      Satire often falls under the scope of “artistic license,” though I’d consult an attorney with your question before proceeding.

      Reply
  • Lynn
    February 6, 2017

    Very valuable information! Thank you for this post!

    Reply
  • Mary Ann
    February 5, 2017

    Good information, as government documents often harder to understand. This also helps me to get a handle on reading the gov. stuff. Thanks.

    Reply
  • Karen
    February 5, 2017

    Perfect timing. This is top of my mind right now as I’m working on a book about success. I want to actually look at the science/statistics/evidence behind success so I’m reading a ton of books about success and autobiographies of successful people. If I quote from these books, either directly or by referring to ideas or concepts they cover, cite my source, and include a list of references, do I also need to get permission from the authors? Some of the books I’m reading are research heavy and have literally pages of references at the end. They didn’t contact all those authors, right? This would fall under fair use, surely?
    Karen recently posted…Ten Steps To Creating An Epic Blog PostMy Profile

    Reply
    • Kristen Joy
      February 6, 2017 Karen

      Karen – if it’s under 50 words you’re quoting it should fall under fair use. However, if it’s more than that, you should get permission from the copyright holder (author, publisher, etc.). You’d be surprised how many big reference books like that they actually DO get written permission from everyone. If nothing else, it’s a courtesy to the original author to let them know you’ll be quoting their work. (Disclaimer: I’m not an IP attorney and I recommend you always consult one before proceeding quoting other people’s work.)

      Reply
  • Lotte
    February 5, 2017

    It can however be difficult not to write same things in a book about same topic, without copying it because there’s just one way of saying it. Would it then be copyrighted for the first one who write ect. Standing on stage can be scary?

    Best Lotte

    great article.

    Reply
    • Kristen Joy
      February 6, 2017 Lotte

      In some cases Lotte, yes. That’s where fair use and the fact that you can’t copyright common phrases, lists, numbers, facts, etc. comes into play. If there’s anything you have any concern about quoting or writing, I’d consult an IP attorney first.

      Reply
  • Douglas Kelly
    February 5, 2017

    I’m writing a non-fiction book. I have used several authors material who have written about the same things, but I always give them attribution either in the article, or in a footnote on the same page. I never use a quote or a paragraph without attribution.

    Is this legal and is it enough?

    I have gotten precise permission from one source to quote an article, but they required I insert a backlink to their website as part of granting permission. I didn’t use the article because that’s just plain stupid.

    Reply
    • Kristen Joy
      February 6, 2017 Douglas Kelly

      Douglas,

      Depending on how much you’re quoting, you could be walking a fine line. As for quoting entire articles, I’d NEVER do that without written permission. And for an author to request their website in the attribution is actually common practice. You’re profiting from someone else’s work, which means the least you can do is send some traffic their way by mentioning their website (if they have one). Put yourself in their shoes. Would you want traffic sent to you as a thank-you for letting someone else use your hard work?

      Reply
  • Diane Wood
    February 5, 2017

    I’m lovin’ this blog. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Virginia Reeves
    February 4, 2017

    Thanks for these important reminders.

    Reply
  • Sandy
    February 6, 2016

    Good information. thank you.

    Reply