Do You Need Permission to Use That Quote in Your Book?
Do You Need Permission to Use That Quote in Your Book?

Do You Need Permission to Use That Quote in Your Book?

As you write your own book, you may find you want to use material that has been previously published. You might want to cite a research study, or use a quote from a famous person. In some situations, you are free to do that, but in many others you have to request permission from the organization that published the information or from the person who you want to quote.

As author, whether you find a traditional publisher, or are self-published, are responsible for

Determining what you must obtain permission for in your manuscript
Obtaining that permission in writing from the copyright holder
Paying any fees involved in obtaining that permission

It might seem like requesting permissions would be an easy process, but it can take months for some copyright holders to reply to your requests. So it is important that you initiate requests to reprint items that require permission as soon as you know you will have them in your manuscript.

Many authors think they want to use quotes from lots of people. It is common to consider using an opening quote to set the tone for each chapter. But to the extent possible, you should consider NOT using work from other sources. Using others work too much actually decreases the power of your work, and adds to the complexity of preparing a manuscript.

Most of the time, you are better off summarizing information or rewriting it so that it bears little resemblance to the original but still contains the important information.

Ownership of Intellectual Property

The owner of the intellectual property you want to use has the right to say no to your request, or to allow your use the material for a fee, which may be substantial. The owner will probably want to know how you are using the material before giving permission.

Think about your own work. Would you want someone to quote you without your permission in a work that you didnt like or agree with?

You should never go to the printer with a book before you have all the permissions because you assume you will get them. You may not, and then you would have to destroy all the copies.

Copyright Law

Although authors wish it did, the copyright law does not spell out quantitative measures (such the percentage of or certain number of words of) copyrighted material that you can use without getting permission. This is a very subjective thing, and unfortunately, occasionally is decided in court after an infringement of copyright lawsuit. But you should err on the side of caution and get permissions whenever you are in a gray area.

Fair Use

Many authors hope the material they want to use will be considered under the "fair use" part of the copyright law that says that certain materials can be used without permission. For instance, if you hear a Senator talking to a television reporter and you hear him say something, you can use that quote in your material as long as you quote him or her accurately, and show that this was a quote. You may also have to be careful to quote in enough entirety to not take it out of context and distort the meaning.

However, if the quote you want to use is in writing, particularly if it is taken from a professional work, or is from a newspaper or magazine, or is taken from a work of fiction, or is a song lyric, a poem, or is from a personal letter, you will need permission to use it. Contrary to common belief, material obtained from the Internet or from an email is also protected by copyright law. In addition, photographs or other graphic material such as ads or charts or cartoons must have permission to be used.

Case Studies, Interviews, and Research

Many non-fiction authors use case studies and interviews to add the human element through stories to their work. This is an important technique and is important in creating a good book. Whenever possible, the best approach is to disguise beyond recognition the identities and circumstances of individuals quoted or referred to in interviews or cases or examples. Generally you should use a changed first-name only to identify people, and use such generalities that many people could be that person you write about.

Getting Permission

You will probably have to figure out first who actually owns the material you want to copy. Most likely it is the publisher of the material, but may also be the author of the material.

If the publisher no longer exists, the rights would likely have reverted to the author. If the author has died, then the estate probably owns the rights.

Once you determine the owner, you need to send a letter or email and ask if the copyright owner will grant permission. You will want to send a form with your letter that tells exactly how and under what circumstances you will use the material.

If you are working with a traditional publisher, that publisher will probably have forms they want you to use that cover all the rights they want you to obtain.

If you self-publish, you may want to use standardized forms developed for that purpose.

Take the ownership of intellectual property seriously and get permissions up front. Dont wait for an attorney to get in touch with you after the fact.


Gail Richards is founder of a dynamic website connecting aspiring authors with the classes, audio library, tools, information and resources needed to make smart, informed decisions at each step in the nonfiction book publishing journey. Jan King is the founder of a membership organization devoted to supporting and coaching women who become successfully published nonfiction authors.