Tag Archives: creative property

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?