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.