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 notrenewed.
  • 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 seriestitle 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.

Kristen Joy

Kristen Joy

Kristen Joy Laidig is the founder of The Book Ninja. She has authored over 40 books, started over 50 publishing companies, trained over 10,000 authors worldwide, has her black belt in karate, and eats way too much chocolate. She currently changes lives through her students… one published message at a time, manages her two retail stores Toy Box Gifts & Wonder® and Nerdvana Outpost in the heart of her newfound hometown, Chambersburg, PA, is in the start-up phase of at least three new businesses at any given time, and generally causes anyone reading this bio to be out of breath. On her “off” time (what’s that?) she brainstorms business ideas with her awesome husband, the great Public Domain Expert himself, Tony Laidig, and hangs out with her two ragdoll kitties. She’s even been known to sleep... occasionally.

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