On copyright and ‘fair use’:  do you need permission to quote people in your book?

As a nonfiction author, you may want to quote other people in your book—be it to set a certain tone, amplify your point, or teach the reader something important. However, the use of quotes is a minefield, and getting it wrong can result in getting sued. So, the question is: are you allowed to reprint quotes? Do you need the author’s permission? Is it a breach of copyright? We’ll answer all of those questions here… 

A caveat 

Before you start using quotes in your book, it’s worth noting that within copyright law, the use of quotes is a very grey area. Annoyingly, there isn’t a simple cut-and-dry rule that specifies whether you can use a quote or not, how many words you can re-print, or anything along those lines. So any answers are based on interpretations and principles, not legal certainties.  

When it’s fine 

There are a few occasions when it’s fine to quote someone without seeking permission. The most clear-cut case is work in the public domain. This happens after a certain amount of time. For example, anything published before 1925 can be used as of Jan 2020, and so on. You can read more here. If you’re only stating the title of a book, not quoting it, then that’s also fine—as is adding a link to something. Note that this also applies to poems, screenplays, and song lyrics—not just books. 

The tricky part 

The less clear-cut area is known as “fair use”. If the quote is considered “fair use”, then you don’t need permission. However, figuring out whether it’s fair use is the difficult part, because the four criteria aren’t exactly explicit. They are: 

  1. The purpose and character of the use:If you aim to make a profit, this is different to if you’re using the quote for educational purposes.Though the former doesn’t mean it’s not fair use. Vague, right? 
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work: For example, fact vs. creation. If the work being quoted states a fact, then it’s not copyrighted. Facts are facts.  
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the entire quoted work: While there’s no magic word count here, it’s fair to say that you can’t go quoting huge chunks of text. It needs to be a small amount, some suggest around 300 words from a full book, but that figure is not set in stone and doesn’t guarantee fair use. 
  4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the quoted work: In other words, will your book stop people buying the original book because you’ve made it unnecessary? 

When to seek permission 

If you’re not sure whether the quote you want to use falls under “fair use”, then it’s best to seek permission. However, it’s worth noting that seeking such permissions may cost hundreds or even thousands. If you don’t have the time or money to seek permission, then it’s easier to just delete the quote. If you don’t seek permission and get it wrong, then you could be sued. In fact, the only way to determine whether something is “fair use” happens during a court case if an author gets sued. This will inevitably be more expensive and costly than seeking permission in the first place.  

How to seek permission 

First, you need to figure out who holds the copyright. For books, it’s most likely the author, but look on the copyright page to double-check. Contact the publisher to gain permission—or the author or their agent if you don’t get a response from the publisher. Most major publishers have permissions letters on their website. If your book is being published by a traditional publisher, they should provide you with a permissions letter. If you’re self-publishing, you can use a template letter. Note that you probably want to ask for “nonexclusive world rights” so you can sell your book anywhere in the world—and that you will need to seek permission again if you publish a second or third edition. 

How not to seek permission 

If seeking permission sounds too long or too expensive, then you can avoid quoting the book directly and paraphrase the quote instead. The reason why is because an idea itself can’t be copyrighted, but the way it’s expressed can be. So, if you paraphrase the concept by significantly changing the wording or summarising the idea, this can avoid the issue of needing to seek permission.  

In summary 

Ultimately, if you don’t seek permission to use a quote, then nobody can determine whether you’re allowed to reprint it until you get sued, which is understandably frustrating. To mitigate the risk of getting it wrong, your options are: stick to quotes in the public domain, seek permission if you have the time and funds, delete the quote, or paraphrase it significantly. Do you really need to use that quote? Is it worth it?