When do authors need to seek permission, and how do you go about it?

Copyright is an important protection for authors’ creative property but the rules are hard to fathom, especially in the internet age. I’ve been doing some research…

The first task I’m having to tackle in self-publishing ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is gaining permission to include quotations from other books.

I’ve only had to do this once before, when I wanted to use a sentence from the work of CG Jung in my book for adults about bullying. Permission was granted, but there was a fee of £40 to pay, and this was a decade ago. Other authors have approached my agent for permission to use extracts from my books and the fees we have charged have been between £75 and £150, but these were for quite sizeable chunks.

The only permission I've sought before now, for my book, 'Your Child: Bullying' back in 1998
The only permission I’ve sought before now, for my book, ‘Your Child: Bullying’ back in 1998

My dream book includes forty-seven quotations of varying lengths, so having whipped out my trusty calculator and updated the likely fees to take into account inflation I considered abandoning the idea of including quotations at all, or at least cutting the number right down.

But the quotations I’ve chosen are all wonderful and I didn’t want to lose a single one of them, so I did some research. It seemed to me that perhaps copyright laws might be less rigid now with the internet, where loads of people use quotations freely in blogs and fb pages. I asked several of the most high-profile bloggers and fb pages I follow whether they sought permission for the quotations they use, but not a single one of them replied.

So I looked up copyright permissions in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and discovered that here in the UK you don’t need permission to quote from someone who has been dead for more than 70 years, although the cut-off time may vary in other territories. That straight away meant I could take eight of the quotations off my list. I felt encouraged!

One of the quotes I can use freely, being outside copyright (Rilke died in 1926)
One of the quotes I can use freely, being outside copyright (Rilke died in 1926)

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the information felt frustratingly vague, so I then emailed the Society of Authors with a list of questions. Since most of my quotations were very short, I thought I might not need to seek permission at all because a big issue seemed to be how much you wanted to use, and there was something called ‘fair use’ for little snippets.

I’ve since discovered that different publishers have different interpretations of the term ‘fair use’, and there’s no actual rule about how many words you want to use before you have to seek permission.

My agent advised me to seek permission for everything, even if it was only a few words, and hope that publishers would not charge me a fee for quotations that were barely more than a name-drop for their authors.

When you seek permission, you have to contact the first publisher of the book you want to quote from. I found this wasn’t always easy especially when the publisher had gone out of business or the author had died and I couldn’t easily find out who owned their copyrights. But everyone I contacted was very helpful, pointing me towards agents or in some cases individuals who might be able to grant the permissions I was seeking.

It’s felt like detective work – long-winded but rewarding. I’ve sent dozens of email enquiries, one postal enquiry where I couldn’t track down an email address and another one where the rights-holder didn’t possess a computer or use the internet.  I’ve had to fill in complicated forms for larger publishers and send  sections of my book to publishers who have wanted to vet it before granting permission for their authors’ work to be included. Sometimes I’ve had to contact separate rights-holders who hold different rights in the same work, say e-book rights or paperback rights, world rights or only certain territories.

Straightforward it is not. But so far, thirty or so rights-holders have granted my request and only six of them have charged me a fee, so it looks as if I’ll be able to include most of the quotations I want to use in ‘Writing in the House of Dreams.’

There have been unexpected bonuses in having to seek all these permissions, which initially seemed such a chore

  • because I’m a scribble-in-the-margins kind of reader rather than an organised note-taker, it’s meant flicking through some books I haven’t read for years in order to track down quotations and realising how deeply their wisdom has since affected my life
  • it’s drawn my attention to related organisations and further reading that I now want to investigate
  • it’s meant I’ve had interesting email exchanges with lots of different people, including one of my all-time dream-heroes, Patricia Garfield
  • one publisher I sought permission from has asked to see my whole MS

Have you ever had to seek or grant permissions? Can you add to my understanding of copyright?


27 thoughts on “When do authors need to seek permission, and how do you go about it?”

  1. Interesting, and I’m glad the tiresome aspects ended up having a positive outcome – I’ve just checked my former university website here in Australia, and it seems the law varies from country to country, which I didn’t previously know. Presumably you have some type of copyright Act in the UK you can consult directly? Here, it seems ‘fair use’ is reasonably generous, but the types of uses quotations can be put to are the issue.

    1. Yes, it’s very complicated, Inge. The law in the UK seems a bit woolly and open to interpretation, and the issue of territories is further complicated when you’ve got different rights holders granting different territories for different numbers of copies. For example, one publisher who has granted me permission for certain territories will only give me a licence for 500 copies, but the publisher who has granted me the rest of the world has given a licence for 3000 copies. Presumably this will mean I have to monitor where I’m selling.

      1. Oh dear! That seems a bit ridiculous. Isn’t the law being a bit woolly and open to interpretation to your advantage then? People insert short quotations from others all the time and it’s generally accepted as ‘fair dealing’, as long as credit is given and the quotation isn’t used out of context.

        1. Apparently, those people may be breaching copyright law. Both the Society of Authors here in the UK and my agent have advised me to clear all the quotations, even when they’re really short. There’s no actual number value on what’s considered ‘fair dealing,’ and where I’ve used the term I’ve found publishers interpret that idea in different ways.

  2. I sought permission for one quote a couple of years ago, Jenny, and it was a minefield – it was a line from a Leonard Cohen poem and I ended up chatting to all sorts of people – sadly, not the great man himself. Well done for sticking with it and managing to secure so many of those quotes.

    1. I believe musical lyrics are even more expensive/hard to get permissions for, Abi. I want to use 2 lines from Bob Dylan, but I’m not hopeful I’ll be able to.

  3. Inge, you can paraphrase, but the way I’ve organised this text is punctuated by quotations at the start of each new section, rather than embedding them. I won’t be doing that again though one of my readers did comment that she really loved the quotations – as you say, a shame.

  4. For my first book I asked for permission to use some illustrations from three authors. Two of them said fine go ahead and the other said I could use his drawing as long as I gave him credit for it. No money was exchanged. I thought you could quote other books as long as you gave that author credit or state where the quote is from. I will have to watch closely about how I approach quoting other authors should I need to do it in the future. This post has been an education for me.

    1. This process has been an education for me, Brian. I thought the same, and it makes sense, insofar that quoting someone is giving them free positive publicity if you attribute the quotation properly. I probably wouldn’t have included so many quotes in my concept of the book if I’d known when I started how complicated and potentially expensive it would be

  5. Here in the U.S., we have the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has since been updated. But, it specifically addresses material published in the electronic age. I believe a good rule to follow – whether or not you receive direct permission from the publisher or the author – is merely to give the appropriate credit or acknowledgement with an end note, footnote, or hyperlink. Most of us writers at least want to be given credit for our work.

    1. Hi Alejandro – that’s interesting! I’ve been told it’s OK to use images from Wikimedia commons on the blog if you insert the link, and that’s generally what I do, so I wonder if the rules for quoting online are different. Certainly, when it’s come to seeking permissions to use quotations in my pod paperback and e-book, it’s the US publishers generally who have charged me a fee.

  6. It is extremely frustrating for me. I want to use quotes from a poet whose work had a great influence on my understanding of the civil war in El Salvador. The poet is dead. His son said he would write up a contract. A translator (of poems in Spanish) said all I need to do is credit the author; he said I didn’t even need to credit the translator! Then, a poetry magazine told me I need to get permission from the publisher. Since they are translated into English, that would be an American publisher that no longer exists. I am told they sold their rights to an Illinois university. I have attempted to contact them, but haven’t heard back.
    My editor says take it all out; he thinks it is not worth the hassle.
    I hope there is a way to include at least some lines of poetry to show the connection between the men in my prologue and the modern-day story. Wish me luck . . . please.

    1. I’ve got one or two that are proving really difficult as well, Sherrie. My understanding is that if you have tried but have not been able to find rights holders or you can’t get a reply from them, then you can put one of those disclaimers you sometimes see in the front of your book, along the lines that all reasonable attempts have been made to get permission. Obviously, you’d need to keep all the emails/letters you send for proof that you’ve really tried. However, if translators are also involved it presumably gets even muddier. I’m planning a second book and will choose quotations from books that the authors/agents/publishers have been easy to trace and willing to grant me free permission to use this time. It does feel a shame to have to limit it, but as your editor says, sometimes it’s just not worth the hassle.

      1. Looking at this issue from another angle, how then would you word your copyright statement to give another writer an easier time with all this, if they wanted to quote you? I’ve never thought about this before and so have put very standard (rather restrictive, as I realise now) wording in mine, and am considering changing it to be less restrictive in future, but of course, one also has to be careful of plagiarists.

        1. Ooh, that’s a really interesting thought, Inge. Bloggers sometimes have the creative commons cover, which has different levels of permission, so why shouldn’t authors of books be able to do something similar? I guess one thing is that it’s the publisher that holds copyright and charges for permissions, so the author and publisher would have to agree the wording, though presumably that’s straightforward with a published book. I’m going to look into this.

  7. I suppose so – only you have to ask the original publisher, so it doesn’t feel that way, and big publishers say they have a ‘standard charge’ which also doesn’t feel like much to do with the author. The only time I’ve been advised to ask the authors direct is for quoting from interviews they’ve done for an anthology

  8. This article is so timely for me. I just made my way through some convoluted instructions on seeking permission to include some quotes from various books and articles today. I agree that it’s better to be safe than sorry. However, I’m not willing to pay to use just a quote. So I’ve decided that depending on the responses, I may just rewrite those sections of my book and stick with all original work. I’d prefer to be able to reference some of the literature in my book though, if anything for credibility’s sake.

  9. Hi Jennifer – it feels a shame not to be able to quote from books and authors you love, but I’ve reached the same conclusion that it isn’t worth all the hassle, so I’m avoiding quotations in the book I’m writing now. It’s not so much about credibility for me as little tasters of something my readers might enjoy, because a lot of my own reading has been guided by following up intriguing quotations. I’m going to put ‘feel free to quote so long as you attribute’ on the copyright pages of my own books – I’ll be delighted if other authors would like to use quotations from me!

    1. I agree about being delighted if someone wanted to quote me 🙂 with attribution of course, so have changed the copyright statement in my latest book to allow them to do so without permission. Glad to hear you’ve done the same – and I agree, seeking permission is hardly worth the bother.

  10. Hello Jenny and thanks for this extremely interesting article, and to everyone who replied. My wife has just about finished a really excellent work on the prophecies of Carl Jung and has been a bit desperate about the copyright issue; apart from the great man himself she has also quoted Kahil Gibran, C.S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell (as well as Elaine Pagels whom we are trying to contact directly)
    If you, or anyone reading this, have any e mail addresses for contacting the publishers or heirs of any of the above we would be eternally in your debt.
    Creativity can be agonising, but articles such as this give hope.
    Warmest regards, Finbar

    1. Hi Finbar – I’m glad you found it useful! For living authors, it could be useful contacting them through their social media too. I got permission from one of my poetry heroes through fb messaging – he’s even more of a hero now!

  11. Thank you Jenny. We just got an immediate reply from Elaine Pagels!
    You mentioned using a quote from Jung, could you kindly let me know how you contacted the publishers/heirs?

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