Copyright Laws For Quoting Books In Essays

It’s perfectly okay to quote an excerpt of another author’s work in your writing, but it’s not always okay to do so without permission. If you don’t want to be sued for copyright infringement, it’s important to know when you need permission and when you don’t. And that’s not always obvious. Even theU.S. Copyright Office acknowledges how difficult it can be to determine when you need permission to quote:

The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.

When Do You Need To Get Permission To Use Quotes? 

Copyright is a form of protection for creative and original works, and U.S. copyright is automatic the moment that work is formed into a “tangible form of expression” such as written on disk or paper, or recorded.

This work—whether it’s a song, sketch, or short story—is intellectual property, protected by copyright as long as it can be viewed (or communicated) in a fixed form. Reproducing copyrighted work without permission is copyright infringement.

So, when do you need permission to quote song lyrics or poems or excerpts from novels in your writing? The answer is: If quoting without permission results in copyright infringement, then you need to get permission.

If you want to quote a small piece of someone else’s material in your work—whether it’s song lyrics, poems, excerpts from novels or interviews, photographs, or material from the Internet—you must credit the source, even if you plan to use only one or two lines of a song or poem.

But keep in mind that acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material is not a substitute for acquiring permission from the copyright owner.

Because quoting can be so tricky, some writers try to quote only from publications that fall under the fair use category. Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright’s website contains a list of the purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair use. This includes using quoted material for the use of criticism, commentary, teaching, parody, summary, and research—to name a few.

If you’re writing a book and you want to include a quote for purposes of commentary or parody, you’re probably within your rights to do so, provided that you’re just excerpting a short quote and not including, say, an entire short story or poem. But as always, do credit the source.

Another exception is if the material falls under public domain, like ideas, titles of books, slogans, and names—things that cannot be copyrighted. Public domain material includes work created before January 1, 1923, works for which the copyright has expired—and most federal and state government documents. However, to make things more complicated, even if a work is in the public domain in the United States, it may still be protected overseas, where the rules concerning copyright duration differ.

And, finally, if a work is licensed under Creative Commons, you may not need permission to quote from it. Creative Commons licenses “help creators retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work, at least non-commercially.” (Check out the Creative Commons website for further clarification of their rules and exceptions.)

The U.S. Copyright Office advises: “The safest course is to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. When it is impracticable to obtain permission, you should consider avoiding the use of copyrighted material unless you are confident that the doctrine of fair use would apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine whether a particular use may be considered fair nor advise on possible copyright violations.”

If you do successfully track down the copyright owner, be prepared to pay for the privilege of using their work. Sometimes you’ll receive permission for free (as your work may be seen as promotion), but fees can range from a few bucks to thousands of dollars.

Finally, don’t assume you can obtain permission to quote “later,” as in after your book is published. You may find yourself having to destroy all copies, not to mention facing legal fees and copyright damages.

A Practical Approach To Quotes And Permissions

Is it now crystal clear to you when you need permission to quote in your own writing? Probably not. The issue of copyright infringement is complex and fraught with gray areas, so before you quote song lyrics, poems, excerpts of novels, or other material in your writing, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

As a general guideline, if you’re going to be quoting a lot of text, get permission. And if you’re just quoting a single line but aren’t certain it’s okay to do it, get permission then too. You might think you don’t need permission for short quotes from properly cited sources. But when in doubt, play it safe.

At Writer’s Relief, we are writers’ advocates—but we don’t claim to offer legal advice. If you want to quote someone else’s material in your own work, we urge you to research copyright law carefully or, even better, consult an intellectual property attorney.

Photo by jmawork

QUESTION: Have you ever gone through the process of finding permission to quote in your own work? How did it go?

There is no legal limit on how much of a book or an article or other source you can use in writing an essay or a paper.  There is a legal doctrine, the doctrine of fair use, that allows you to use someone else’s copyrighted material to some degree.  What really matters is how you are using the material that you are quoting.  If you do use two or three paragraphs, you will need to be sure to put the entire passage in quotes so that it is clear that you are not claiming that the work is yours.  You will also need to cite your source.  This is the minimum requirement.  Most teachers, however, will very much prefer that you not simply quote that much of a copyrighted work verbatim.

As I mentioned above, the way that you are using the material matters.  Let us say, for example, that you are doing a review or a critique of a novel.  In that context, you might copy two or three paragraphs so that you can really show something like how the author is using language over an extended portion of the work.  On the other hand, let us say that you reviewing a novel and you want to use two or three paragraphs of someone else’s review of that same novel.  Your teacher is much less likely to approve of this.  They are much more likely to think that you should do your own work and come up with your own ideas.  This might not be a legal violation of copyright, but it would probably hurt your grade.

To summarize, there is no set legal limit on the length of a quote from a copyrighted source.  It is very unlikely that two or three paragraphs quoted in an academic paper would exceed legal limitations on fair use.  However, your instructor is likely to take points off if you use such a long quote in most situations.  It is better to make the quote as short as possible and to put more of your own words in your essay or paper.

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