Quoting Copyrighted Work

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One of the most common questions writers have is, how much of someone else’s work can you quote without securing reprint permission? Can you quote a stanza from a poem? A paragraph from a magazine article? A page from a novel?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as clear as we might wish. It lies somewhere within the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. The original intent of copyright law was to protect a writer’s work from someone else using and profiting from it. The framers of this law, however, didn’t want it to be so rigid that it prevented reasonable public use of copyrighted works. Hence, the fair use doctrine was written.

In a nutshell, these are the factors you must consider when deciding whether it’s okay to quote without permission:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.

2. The nature of the copyrighted work.

3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.

4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

(U.S. Code, Title 17, Section 107)

As you can see, these factors are not clearly defined. A common myth is that writers are free to use 400 words from a book, 50 words from an article, or two lines from a poem or song, and it constitutes fair use. This is not true. In reality, fair use can only be determined by the court. And if you’re already in court, you’re in trouble.

Song lyrics are particularly troublesome as the music industry is aggressive about protecting songwriters. Typically, you need reprint permission to use even a single line from a song.

What this means to writers is that you should always be mindful of the fair use doctrine and take great care to seek reprint permission if you have any doubt. Furthermore, anytime you quote from someone else’s work, be sure to properly attribute it.

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4 thoughts on “Quoting Copyrighted Work”

  1. Good advice.

    Could you please expand upon your last paragraph, regarding proper attribution, in a future post?

    I think there are probably quite a few writers who just do not understand the concept, so maybe disregard the importance of doing so.

    Another future posting(s) could be the obtaining of reprint permission:

    How To.

  2. We occasionally check to see where our online articles are reposted. We welcome reposting if we are properly cited and if a link is provided to one of our websites. However, we consider reposting without citation to be a violation of both copyright and terms of use.

    We have a client who has “lifted” someone’s blog post in this way, and we refused to work on it. Instead, we recommended that the client summarize the content, describe why the information is pertinent, and link to the original article.

    In light of this, copyrighting and fair use is an issue that we struggle with, ourselves, when developing articles on writing. On occasion, we want to use a snippet from a published book or other source to illustrate some writing concept. We always cite the author or source, but we, too, need to look into this more carefully. At a minimum, we try to get e-mail approval from the author or source for use.

  3. Great post. And timely too! I recently discovered rampant plagiarism in a manuscript I was copyediting for — of all things — a legal treatise! I feel I did the author and the publishing house a favor by pointing this out.

    I was not aware of the “myth” about writers being “free to use 400 words from a book, 50 words from an article, or two lines from a poem or song.” Sounds like nonsense to me.

    In my opinion, proper attribution is not only a legal consideration, but it is also an ethical one.

    Thanks for covering this topic, Jacquelyn. 🙂

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