Copyrighted material—when is it okay to use and when isn’t it?

Posted By on April 3, 2013

There is always a lot of confusion among authors as to when it’s okay to use copyrighted material with just listing the source and when permission needs to be obtained. So what are the rules?

First, let us discuss “fair use,” which is using material without the need to obtain permission. The Chicago Manual of Style says that “quotations should not be so long that they diminish the value of the work from which they are taken.” In the case of books, experts usually estimate you can use an aggregate of up to three hundred words freely as long as it includes attribution. If you quote just a paragraph from a book and mention the author and title, you don’t need to obtain permission. For magazine articles, fifty words is the maximum. Straight news articles from newspapers (not features) of any length can be safely used after three months. This does not include any article that is syndicated, under a byline, or individually copyrighted. Photographs, artwork, and cartoons will also require the permission of the copyright holder.

BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), the national organizations that handle permissions for written reprints on song lyrics, will need to be contacted directly. If possible quote only a line or two in your work, which will put your quote within fair use, and you won’t need written permission.

One way to circumvent copyright problems is to paraphrase what was said. Ideas are not copyrightable—only the specific words used to express them. With all the mergers over the last decade, it’s sometimes impossible to track down a copyright owner. I generally urge clients to avoid this hassle. The best rule is to use good common sense. Don’t take from another writer something you would resent being used if you were the author.

 Of course, some things are not protected by copyright. They are considered to be in the public domain. Material goes into public domain if its original copyright was not renewed or if copyright protection has been exhausted.

Government publications are also typically in the public domain, but this can be a gray area. If you plan to use extensive sections verbatim, it is wise to have a copyright search performed. When you are using just portions, no permission is needed, but it’s a good idea to cite the specific source. Also be aware that government publications often contain illustrations and other materials that are covered by individual copyrights. Read the fine print carefully.


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16 Responses to “Copyrighted material—when is it okay to use and when isn’t it?”

  1. This is really helpful. I’m glad to know about your blog and look forward to more A to Z!

    Jenny at Choice City Native

  2. Bookmarking this. Great info I’d like to pass on to my writing friends.

    Damyanti @Daily(w)rite
    Co-host, A to Z Challenge 2013

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  3. My earlier comment may have hit spam. Please rescue it :)

  4. Good to know!

    Blogging A to Z Challenge

  5. Thanks, Jenny!

  6. Very informative. Another great A to Z contribution.

    Wrote By Rote
    An A to Z Co-host blog

  7. I’ve been through a lot of this while doing undergrad and post grad work.
    There is also the precarious issue re images that you can just grab from google! This seems to be the new ‘plagierism’ I think

  8. Yes, that’s something I probably should have mentioned. Thanks for bringing it up!

  9. Thanks, Lee!

  10. Thanks so much, Damyanti!

  11. Good info. I know I sometimes wonder what’s acceptable. Especially when it comes to mentioning movies or TV shows.

  12. People also don’t realize that photos are copyrighted and using them without permission is a violation.

  13. This was helpful, I knew the guidelines for uni essays but not for quotes etc in books. willl be useful with my non fiction book and if I get a mad idea to quote lines from books or poetry or from songs as chapter titles! have bookmarked the article so I can refer to it again.
    Thank you

  14. Appreciate the comments, Liz!

  15. Excellent point, Toni! Thanks for commenting.

  16. Glad you found this helpful, Linda!

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