Wednesday, November 14, 2018

When is Permission to Quote Necessary for Writers?

by Linda Gilden @LindaGilden

Who doesn’t love a good quote? After all, why should we try to put into words something that someone else has eloquently said? As writers, we are always looking for and finding good quotes to strengthen our books and articles. Using someone else’s words brings credibility to our work. But when is it necessary to ask permission to use a sentence or two from someone else in our writing?

Some of the top questions from writers on this subject are
“When do I need permission?”
“I’m only quoting a little. Won’t that be good publicity for the other person?” 
“The person who originally said this is dead. So anyone can quote him or her without permission, right?”

Great questions. There are several factors that enter into the answers. One of those is fair use. But who determines fair use? Unfortunately, fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis by the courts, which makes it somewhat of a gray area for writers. However, knowing a few guidelines will help us avoid any problems.
  • Only using a short part of a long work such as a book from another person is usually okay. If you quote from an article, less is allowed. It can be looked upon as a percentage thing, although there is no law that states a specific number. This is the gray area. If you want to use long quotes, you will need permission from the copyright owner which could be either the author or the publishing house or in some cases the family of a deceased author. Contact publishers through their permissions department. You can usually find that address online.
  • Quoting poetry is an exception. If you were to quote five lines from a 20-line poem, that is 25 per cent of the poem. Definitely not a good idea.
  • To quote lyrics from a song, you will alwaysneed permission. The rules for quoting music are different and much more stringent. My recommendation would be not to use quotes from music at all. If you want to refer to a song, do it by paraphrasing. Instead of quoting, you might say, “one of my favorite songs is the story of a man walking along the highway with his dog looking for meaning in life.” If you think there is no other way than to quote the song, then you must contact the copyright owner for permission. Many studios have also permissions departments. Keep in mind response time may be slow and permission may come with a monetary price.

There are many articles written on permission issues. Not all of them agree. If you are in doubt about whether or not permission is needed, it is never wrong to ask. It would be better to ask and not need it then to need it and end up in court. Several good websites exist that are helpful as well.

The person you are quoting will receive exposure to a new group of readers. And it makes sense to us that that is a good thing. A broader reach, new readers, expanded publicity. But this is all a business and to some that is the only filter they use. Therefore, if someone wants to use something they have written, they must pay for the use. Never assume that someone will be glad for the extra marketing help and want to generously donate their words.

When do I not need permission?

Permission is not needed when you are quoting a work that is in the public domain. That is, if the copyright date is before 1923. For works published after 1977, the copyright on works written by a single author expire at the end of the 70thyear after the author’s death. Stanford University Libraryhas an excellent explanation of public domain. Our government copyright websitealso gives you information about public domain and copyright ownership. Just scroll to the bottom to find specific subjects.

A few things to remember.

Copyright ownership passes to the heirs of the author so even if the author is deceased, the work does not automatically go to public domain.

If you are just mentioning a title or the author of a work, you will not need permission since you are not quoting anything.

Giving credit and citing the source in your text doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t need permission.

The internet seems very public and some think information there belong to the world. But the same rules for permission to quote material apply online.

Summing up this permission question.
Don’t quote long passages without asking permission. 
Rarely quote music lyrics and never without permission. 
Be careful with poetry unless you own the copyright. 
Remember copyright ownership doesn’t necessarily end because the author dies. 
If you are not sure whether or not you need permission, ask a publishing professional.


Linda Gilden is an award-winning writer, speaker, editor, certified writing and speaking coach, and personality consultant. Her passion is helping others discover the joy of communicating with excellence. In the midst of all the busyness, Linda’s favorite activity is floating in a pool with a good book surrounded by splashing grandchildren—a great source of writing material!


  1. Nice blog.Thanks for sharing this post.write for us

  2. A very good point Ms. Linda. Attribution is not the same as having permission. I have a drawer full of letters and emails giving permission for use. Most are probably unnecessary as you point out, but then again I'm the guy who wears both a belt and suspenders. Thank you for the always great counsel. God's blessings.

  3. Thanks Linda, for giving concise information on questions we often ask. I'll print this off for reference.

  4. Thank you, Linda. I have been wondering about many of these issues, so this is timely and helpful.

    I've also wondered at what point we should ask permission. I would assume while in the midst of writing our draft, but do different publishers have legal forms for such things? If so, would I ask an author's permission to quote from his work while writing, and then follow it up with a publisher's official request when the manuscript gets to that stage? Or is just an email request and response sufficient?

  5. Thanks for explaining it so well, Linda!

  6. Thanks, Linda, for the nuts and bolts part of writing. I'm going to print this off, too. By the way, I bought your book about articles at a writer's conference last August. It was so very helpful; thanks again.

  7. Um, still working on this comment box. The last comment was from Roberta Sarver

  8. Hi, Barbara, I would recommend getting permission as soon as you have definitely decided to use someone else's work. If you secure permissions as you are working you will not have a scramble to do so when your manuscript is complete. Also, getting permission can often take a bit of time so if you get permission as you go, you are not sitting around waiting on the permission. However, don't let that hold you up in submitting your manuscript. You can just tell the publisher that permission is pending and you will send when you get it. If you never get it, you must be prepared to swap that quote for something else that you have permission for. The publishing process takes quite a while so the editors can be doing their jobs while you are waiting on the permission to be granted. Hope that helps! Happy writing!