Fair Use Guidelines and Permission to Use Other Authors’ Works

Using material from other authors can help you make your point more clearly and with greater credibility if a better-known source is reinforcing what you have to say. But is it OK to use material in your book that is not your own?

Don't mess around with copyright. Do it right.

Don’t mess around with copyright. Stay within fair use or get permission.

People often assume that if material is copyrighted, they cannot use any of it “without the prior written permission of the publisher.”

However, the doctrine of “fair use” does allow authors to quote a short portion of another author’s work. Quoting large portions or quoting excessively is not considered fair. You must also copy the original perfectly, in the intended context, and give proper credit.

If the purpose of your nonfiction book is to instruct for educational purposes, quotes from other nonfiction sources are likely to be considered fair use. However, if using the quoted material in your book could be considered depriving the copyright owner of income, this is not fair use. Using quoted material from other authors should help and further their cause, not take anything away from them.

Three sources authors seem to love to use that I recommend you avoid completely or gain written permission are:

  • Song lyrics (and sometimes the title of a song if it is trademarked)
  • Poetry
  • Online dictionaries or encyclopedias

If you quote the Bible, using fewer than five hundred verses from one Scripture translation (unless those verses constitute a major portion of your book) is considered fair use for most translations. Every translation requires that you acknowledge the source properly, using the words and format that can be found on the copyright owner’s website or at sources like BibleGateway.com, which contains multiple translations in many languages.

See below for sources that I recommend you seek permission for.

For more information about fair use, consult resources from Stanford University Libraries and attorney Richard Stim (who also answers many copyright questions on his helpful blog): one on fair use, and the other about four factors that measure fair use. Both are very helpful to ensure that the material you want to quote falls within fair-use guidelines.

Permission Required

Securing permission can be a long, stressful process. Sometimes a copyright owner can refuse to grant permission or require a high fee to use the material. If possible, avoid having to seek permission by:

  1. Ensuring that what you quote falls within fair-use guidelines.
  2. Finding a way to summarize or rewrite the material without quoting or plagiarizing it.
  3. Choosing not to use the material at all or using material that does not require permission.

It is best to secure permission for the following situations:

  • Anytime you use material from someone you know personally and you are certain will give you permission, even if it falls under fair use. Letting someone know how you are using his or her material can give your book an additional supporter.
  • More than a few sentences (fifty words) from a blog, essay, article from a newspaper or magazine, online resource, etc.
  • More than 250 words from a full-length book.
  • Personal stories in which people may recognize themselves in your book.
  • If another person has contributed to your content in some way and would claim personal ownership of the material.
  • Poetry, prayers, and song lyrics. Copyright law is very strict about short works, and you’d be surprised how sensitive publishing companies can be about them. Many authors I work with want to include the lyrics to an inspiration song, poem, or prayer, not realizing that these are protected by copyright law. It’s best to consider options 2 or 3 above instead of quoting one of these.
  • Scripture, if you include more than 500 verses of any one translation or if those verses are a majority of your book.
  • Works of art, images, illustrations, photographs, graphics, maps, charts, tables, images on websites, screenshots, reproduction of advertisements, some trademark usage, etc. This is another area that requires sensitively and attention to detail. Just because a graphic is at Google images, that does not mean it’s free to use for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Even images you purchase from a stock-photo website have restrictions. Also note that what may be allowed under copyright for print (like a paperback) may be different for an e-book. Be sure to look at the fine print for what is allowed.
  • For anyone considering royalty-free images:
    • Check print and digital (e-book) rights prices. Sometime they are very different—like thousands of dollars different (e-book format being much higher).
    • Ask about conveyance of rights, since some companies will not let another party assume ownership of the images. For example, if you buy an image and then a publisher chooses to publish your book, the publisher must also buy the image.
    • Beware that finding the cheapest royalty-free images does not necessarily mean the best overall deal. Consider all the license terms.

Question: What questions do you have about fair use and permissions? Leave your comment below.

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