Can I Quote That (in My Novel)?

Mar 14, 2024 |

I offer some caution and best practices with a few clarifications about what can be used in novels from other works.

Can I Quote That (in My Novel)?

Can I Quote That (In My Novel)?

As long as I’ve been covering elements that go in quotation marks in novels (such as dialogue), I thought I’d put together a quick rundown of some of the most common questions I receive about what can be used in novels from other works. Songs, famous authors, brand names… What’s acceptable to use? It’s fine as long as you cite the source, right? Right???

While I used to research, license, and purchase media for publication use in a previous job, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. These tips come from an abundance of caution and the deeply instilled responsibility to try to do things the right way to the best of my ability in order to minimize company risk. 

I’m not going to lie—I put off writing this article for a long time exactly because I’m afraid I’ll get something wrong. This topic gets very muddled and fuzzy even among specialized legal professionals. But… because of that responsibility sense thing, I also know I see so many authors doing so much out of ignorance that’s so wrong that I can’t keep ignoring the topic. 

I can at least offer some caution and best practices with a few clarifications to keep authors on the straight and narrow. After all, they have to know the path exists in the first place. So I’ll do my best.

Understand Copyright

In the U.S., copyright is automatically given to the creator of an original work. As soon as that work is in concrete form, it’s copyrighted without the creator having to do anything else. Copyright is the exclusive rights of the creator to copy, distribute, adapt, and display an original work. An original work includes creations such as written works, images, music, audio, videos, and websites. 

Ideas, no matter how “original” cannot be copyrighted. It is not a “work.” Neither are names or short or common phrases (but they might be trademarked). Nor can procedures or discovery be copyrighted (but remember that they may have patents—not something I cover here). In other words, an expression of an idea can be copyrighted, but not the idea itself. Two people can simultaneously have the same idea or come up with the same process, but the expression of each is likely unique in its own way. Basically, a thing has to exist in a concrete form to be copyrighted.

You hold the copyright of the creative words you write in your manuscript. But the creator of those song lyrics you want to quote in your story holds the rights to those lyrics. This applies without any formal registration for either.

However, copyright can be formally registered with the U.S. Copyright Office for a fee. Registration is helpful for enforcing copyright, so it might be a good idea once your book is written. But whether copyright is registered or not, it still exists. So quoting or otherwise using another work in your book without following the proper steps is still copyright infringement. Unless your usage qualifies for an exception . . . 

Fair Use

First, you need to understand some key concepts that categorize how and when copyrighted content can be used. Depending on how you use copyrighted content and how much of it you use, it may fall under “fair use.”

For purposes such as education, research, or criticism, you may be permitted to use the original work of another creator without permission. Parodies and reviews may also be considered fair use. Note that you should not be competing with the other creator or profiting off of the creator’s work directly.

Even if you are using another’s original work for a purpose usually considered fair use, the amount you use must only be a small fraction of the whole work. For quoting from a novel, 200 or 300 words is often used as a guideline, but there are no explicit thresholds given by law. On the other side, the amount of other creators’ work you use in a work of your own cannot make up a large percentage of your “original” work in which you use it. Your work needs to have a significant original contribution from you.

So yes, fair use is a possible exception to needing permission to use the original work of another creator in a work of your own. The problem is that fair use isn’t black and white. Unless a court has already decided your use case is acceptable fair use, you can’t be 100 percent certain that it is.

Public Domain and Creative Commons

A surer bet for using the work of another without getting explicit permission and without legal repercussions is to use a work already licensed for such use. Works in the public domain or those assigned a Creative Commons 0 (Zero) license can be used with no rights reserved. Other Creative Commons (CC) licenses also grant automatic usage rights but with some stipulations. For example, sometimes you may use the work in any way you like as long as you include attribution. For others, you may need to share your new work (using the CC licensed work) with the same license. 

But it can never just be that easy, can it? Often, it’s not clear which works are in the public domain, and many works are stolen and reshared with CC licenses that the copyright holder has not authorized. It’s best to make sure the work you want to use is provided by a reputable source, and even then it may still require further research.

In the U.S., public domain works are those that have expired copyrights, were put into the public domain by the creator, or weren’t copyrightable in the first place. Copyright has expired for works published earlier than 1927. Copyright for works from 1927 to 1978 may have expired but could have been renewed and requires more digging to be sure. Otherwise copyright usually expires 70 years after the death of the author, but there are a number of caveats (a whole chart’s worth, in fact).

For works listed with Creative Commons licenses granting use without permission, it’s hard to be sure the license was given by the actual creator. For example, popular image-sharing sites frequently contain pirated images with the CC0 or other CC licenses slapped on them. So you may need to do more research, but sometimes tracking down the actual creator isn’t possible. In those cases, you need to weigh the risks of going ahead with using the work anyway based on your intended use.

Permissions and Licensing

If the work you want to use in a creation of your own does not fall under fair use, public domain, or a suitable Creative Commons license for your intended usage, you must get permission and/or license the work for your use. You also need to abide by any set terms once you have permission or license to use the work.

Requesting permission is sometimes like detective work. You need to identify the original creator or copyright holder. Sometimes the copyright holder may be the actual creator, but sometimes it may be an estate or company. Worse, you may not get a response even if you do correctly identify the copyright holder and reach out to request permission. In that case, you do not have permission. Or, you may get a reply that simply denies permission—but hey, at least you’re not left waiting any longer!

If you are granted permission to use the work in your own creation, the copyright holder may charge you a fee to license and use the work. The copyright holder may not agree to all of your requested usage rights, and you may have to adjust your usage plans to stay within the agreed-upon terms. If the terms set will not work for your creation, you’ll have to go another route to avoid using the work in your creation as you had wanted. For example, you may want to sell your creation worldwide, but the copyright holder of the work you want to use in your creation is only granting you rights for distribution in certain countries. Or you’ll have to pay a higher amount for broader rights. And what if you’re granted editorial but not commercial use for a work you wanted to use in promotional materials (such as that image you wanted for your book cover)?

Editorial and Fair Use vs. Commercial Use

Permissions and licenses usually fall under one of two categories: editorial or commercial. Editorial use is basically just another way of saying fair use. Think educational or reporting use. A work licensed for editorial use can be used in support of your own creation as long as you are not casting it in a negative or harmful light. It should pertain to your subject matter and not be used in a way that allows you to directly profit from its use. In other words, it may be used as a small portion of your book’s interior where it relates to your creation. But if you want to put it on your book’s cover, that’s commercial usage.

A commercial use is a promotional one that helps you profit directly. A book cover is a promotional tool. So is any merchandise that you would sell. So if you want to use a short quotation from another work in your book’s text, that would likely be a fair use—or editorial usage. But if you put that quote on your book’s cover or made bookmarks or stationery featuring that quote and then sold those items, that’s definitely commercial usage. You directly profit from another’s content on creations you sell.

Using Famous Quotes

So may you use that inspirational quote from a famous person? Probably yes. As long as you aren’t harming anyone’s reputation with the usage and you’re not directly profiting from it, it’s likely a fair use case. Keep the use minimal, don’t make it sound like any kind of endorsement of the original creator, and don’t use it on promotional materials. Be sure to give proper credit.

But let me weigh in as an editor for a second. Quotes—especially the famous kind—are notoriously hard to attribute accurately. So many quotes have also been attributed inaccurately for so long that hardly anyone realizes the supposed creator never said/wrote it. Or the form of the quote that exists now has simply gone as wrong as a game of telephone. So, even if you technically may use the quote via fair use and don’t have to research to get permission, be sure to do some fact-checking on the quote itself. 

Quoting Song Lyrics

Do you have to? Like . . . really, really have to? The case of using song lyrics in your book is one of the most finicky. The biggest reason is the enforcement of copyright by music publishers. But that goes hand-in-hand with the fact that songs are quite short works, so quoting even a line of a song may end up being a significant fraction of the whole work. Therefore, any usage of song lyrics may fall outside of fair use cases in courts. If you absolutely must use those lyrics, you need to get permission and be prepared to pay a fee (which may be large or incredibly payable, but it’s hard to know until you ask).

However, remember that titles and names are not copyrighted. So, as long as there are no issues of trademarks (see more on trademarks below), you can certainly write in your book that your character listened to “Song Name” by Artist Name. While I would highly advise against including any lyrics themselves, you should be OK to mention a word or two (short phrases or common phrases are not copyrightable) of the lyrics alone. You can also mention the ideas expressed in the lyrics in your own words (ideas are not copyrightable) to note the part of the song your character was crooning in the shower. Even if you don’t think any music publisher is ever going to read your book, save yourself any potential hassle by simply avoiding this legal battle altogether.

The principles mentioned here are also generally applicable to poetry due to its commonly short nature. But it also seems more likely that poets and/or publishers of poetry would be more willing to grant you permission to quote from poems. So, just go ahead and ask!

Using Others’ Characters

Characters aren’t generally copyrighted because names and attributes of a character cannot be copyrighted. However, this area gets a bit muddy. Well-known characters may be protected by copyright if they are specific and distinct enough from generalities. A few are also trademarked as well (see more in the section below).

Therefore, no, you cannot use the fictional characters of other authors in your own work. But you may be able to reference someone else’s character in your work. The most common question authors ask about this topic is whether they can say something about their characters being fans of pop culture characters. And, usually, this usage is fine as fair use. At least make sure it can’t be construed as you trying to make money off the character you’re mentioning or damaging any reputations.

A Quick Note about Trademarks

Trademarks have rules about how they can be used. You may need to check the individual trademark’s usage guidelines. Trademarks can describe (as an adjective) the brand of something, but they can’t replace the name of that something (and be used as a replacement of the noun). Plus, it’s usually best to make sure you’re not casting the trademark in a negative light to avoid picking fights. On the flip side, you can’t make it seem as if the company with the trademark endorses your work in any way. So my take is basically this: unless the trademarked brand is important to specify in your novel, just use the generic noun for the thing you need to mention. Otherwise it’s going to risk sounding redundant anyway. Alternatively, you can always make up your own brand name!

As an additional note, while names and titles can’t be copyrighted, they might be trademarked. Series titles, especially, have possibly been trademarked. 

So be aware and avoid any unwanted drama when you simply want to enchant readers with your story. Take this awareness and these tips as starting points for further research when you’re trying to figure out when you need to get permission. If you’re really uncertain, just seek permission. That’s the safest route! Then get as far as you can on your own manuscript. When you want someone to give it all a check, request an edit or coaching by clicking the button below.

Categories: : novel drafting, novel planning, writer mindset

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