Quotations, epigrams, and aphorisms are everywhere, and with good cause. Brevity being the soul of wit, a snappy quote can serve to set the tone of an article, chapter, or entire work–the first few lines of Yeats’ The Second Coming in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a perfect example. However, the ubiquitous nature of quotes also means that they are often overused, and either used cavalierly, without regard for the context in which they originally appeared, or lazily, when a writer would rather convey a clever quip on a topic than have to do real work writing something compelling on a topic. But discerning usage for tone and thematic reasons isn’t the real focus of this post. It’s about the copyright issues that come up when you use quotes that we are concerned with today!
A lot of people come to us with work that is chock-a-block with quotes, but they haven’t given the slightest thought to whether or not they are free to use what they have put down. Just like images, quotations often require the right permissions in order to be used legally and ethically. The standard public domain rules apply, and old enough quotations are fair game: you can quote things that are in the public domain without attributing permissions. Unfortunately, when you think “public domain” some people think of the internet. Just because something is posted on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s public domain. It’s in the public, yes, but whether it’s a picture or some text, it probably belongs to someone.
Where to Find Reliable Quotes
When it comes to finding the perfect quote, don’t simply resort to quotation websites–most of them are susceptible to inaccuracies and incorrectly attribute quotes to sources that are commonly thought to have said them, but in actuality did not. There are reputable published collections of quotations out there that you can use if you must. Bartlett’s, Oxford, and Yale have the acumen and research put behind their collections that guarantees your quotes will at least be properly sourced.
The most important thing that people overlook is the permission to include recent quotations in their work, that is, to cite a work that is not your own that is not public domain. So how do you obtain that permission?
The Easiest Way to Get Permission to Reprint Something…
…is to ask! Find out who controls the rights to what you want to quote and ask them for permission to reprint a portion of it. Make sure to be extremely specific as to what you want to quote. Having trouble finding out who exactly you need to contact? Sometimes you need to check with a copyright organization in your country. Make an account and let them help you out–that’s what they are there for. In Canada, check out Access Copyright and consult the Copyright Clearance Center in the US. They do the work of contacting the publishers for you, and if you are on the other end, they can ensure that you get the proper accreditation and royalties for your work if it is to be reproduced. Some copyright holders are so hard to find that even these organizations have trouble finding them–luckily, the Copyright Act (at least in Canada) allows Copyright boards to issue you a licence in place of the absentee copyright owner.
Once permission has been obtained, it usually goes on the copyright page, which is one of the first pages in a book.
Just like regular quotes, song lyrics also require permission when reprinting. But when licencing lyrics, expect to pay a lot more than a quotation from a book. Most publishers will persuade the author not to include a song lyric if it is copyrighted–especially if it’s a song by a popular artist. The cost of quoting song lyrics in your book can be thousands of dollars. Usually it’s not worth the cost, and more likely than not, song lyrics don’t add to your body of work. Let your writing speak for itself and convey its own feeling. If you’re attached to the idea of a song lyric, try and find a traditional song that is in the public domain. Most folk songs can be freely sung and reprinted by anyone and have lots of emotional weight that could be a welcome addition to your text. Or, if you are feeling especially creative, you could write your own song and quote it: this works best for fantasy stories, like Tolkien did for Lord of the Rings.
Save yourself the trouble before you quote like crazy in your work by doing your homework beforehand. When self-publishing you are going to need to think of issues like these and work on them yourself. When it comes to stuff like this, asking forgiveness instead of asking permission isn’t always the best course of action.
Join us next week when we talk about the most overlooked page of a book: the copyright page!