Can I Use Someone Else’s Words in My Writing?

Copyright laws can be confusing. So it’s no wonder that one of the most common questions I hear from clients is:  Do I have to get permission to quote a line from a book/song/speech in my book? The answer: It depends.

If you are only mentioning the title or one line in a song you don’t need permission. Here’s what the AP Stylebook & Media Law Briefing says about copyright laws:

While copyright generally prohibits the use of another’s protected expression, the doctrine of “fair use” permits, in certain circumstances, the use of copyright material without its author’s permission.

To determine whether a particular use if fair, courts are required to evaluate and balance such factors as:

1) The purpose of the use;

2) the nature of the copyright work that is used;

3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyright work as a whole; and

4) the effect of the use upon the potential value of the copyright work.

If you want to include a significant portion of a song, you might want to contact the rights holder for permission. But if you are only quoting one line, it’s unnecessary to request permission.

For books, stick to very short passages and be sure to reference the title and author. In other words, don’t plagiarize. Give credit where credit is due. When referring to a song, poem or book title, use italics or quote marks (depending on your publication’s style sheet).

As long as you are not giving away too much or defaming the work and thereby devaluing its future sale by the artist, you’re fine. In fact, the artist may view it as positive, free publicity.

Another common question along these lines is: Do I need permission to reference a product or company name?

In general, no. If you are mentioning a brand name like Disney, Coca Cola, Pepsi or Kleenex, capitalize it. Brands require that their names be treated with respect. No company wants to be linoleum… which was once a trademarked brand but now is common vernacular for any type of vinyl flooring. Companies don’t spend millions in advertising with the intention of becoming generic.

Using the ™ or ® symbols is not necessary in creative writing, but is generally preferred in business writing. In either case, if you use a trademark symbol, limit it to the first use of the product or company name.

If you are writing a factual account and plan to say something negative about the person or company in question, be sure you can back up your claim. Slander and libel laws can be tricky and I’ll save them for another post. Until then, unless you feel it is absolutely necessary to mention a specific person or company (in a negative way), you may want to make it easy on yourself and change the names and identifying details.

Has someone ever used your writing without permission? Leave a comment and tell us how it made you feel.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Ryan - July 10, 2012

This was helpful as I am writing my first book right now called “Dominion.”

Thank you for your insights!

Erin K Casey - July 14, 2012

You’re welcome, Ryan. I wish you good luck and clarity of thought through the writing process!

Tom - October 1, 2012

I have written a song that was inspired by another song. My song would have the same title and key line as the first song, which is repeated periodically during the song, but my song is an entirely different version of the concept: Different words, different tune, upbeat instead of slow, funny instead of serious. There is no connection between the songs other than the title and the use of that title in the song. What do I do as far as publishing it or producing it.

Asa Velumcampo - November 15, 2012

I wrote my first chapter to a book I’m entitling “Catch Her On The Wry” obviously a homophonic, but my female antagonist (the Black Widow) is obsessed with the original hence the title. It’s a John Grisham type of book but I’m obviously doing some parody (style wise) of the original. Anyways, I used one line from the original as kind of an inside joke, but I was notified that someone had googled that particular line. May have something to do with it or it may just be a coincidence (hard to believe). My book-in-the-works title can be googled itself and it comes up as the first result.

Peter A Hunter - June 8, 2013


I am writing a book which is a collection of 50 stories called, “The Trouble with Management.”

I want to preface each story with a quote which I would attribute to the originator.
All of the quotes have been used before in a newsletter, permission was sought, and given, where possible.

Each quote is one or two sentences, for instance.

“It is inconceivable that people are motivated solely by external incentives. Bruno Frey, Economist.”

Where no permission was sought was usually because the quote had already been used by someone else and was already in the public domain or it was taken from an already published work, for instance.

“Management is not the solution, It is the Problem.” Dan Pink.

My question is, are there any of these sources that I can’t use in my book or that I should seek specific permission before including them?
I am particularly concerned about quotes from private individuals from whom I asked permission to use their words in the newsletter and may be difficult to contact to get further permission for the book.

Peter A Hunter

    Erin K Casey - June 19, 2013

    Hi Peter,
    Let me preface this by saying I’m not a lawyer. But this is how I understand the situation you describe:
    * Public domain quotes are not an issue at all. They’re fair game.
    * Short quotes from other sources (like the one you mentioned from Dan Pink) should be fine. It might help to add the title of the book from which you pulled the quotation. If you pulled it from an interview or source other than a book, technically, you should probably cite that source in a bibliography. The deal is, quotes like that, especially when citing their book, only serve to promote the author. A sentence or two is generally acceptable. A paragraph or two is not.
    * I’m having trouble finding a media law resource for quoting non-famous individuals. If they gave you permission for printing their quote in another format, I wouldn’t worry about getting permission again. To me, the first permission is implied consent for other uses (within reason–don’t put their name on a bill board without asking!). If you believe the person would NOT want to be quoted or would feel uncomfortable with their name and title/company displayed for the world to see, respect that and keep them anonymous. –> “Don’t quote me on that.”–Bob, bank manager
    * I did find an article about a book called “Tweet Nothings” where the author pulled a collection of tweets from people without asking permission… perhaps thinking they fell under “fair use” because the quotes are short (under 144 characters). But fair use only applies when you are not earning money from the material. The people being quoted were none-too-happy.

    Hope that helps!

Leave a Reply: