How many times have you opened up a novel or a non-fiction book and discovered that that the first chapter (or even every chapter) was prefaced by a famous quote? Authors often use quotes in their writing in order to emphasize a particular theme or even as a way to get the reader “in the mood” for the story. Regardless, if you want to use quotes in your writing, you’ll need to learn how to get permission.
Many authors choose to use quotes only from people who have been dead more than seventy years because their quotes are now considered “Fair Use” under the public domain. Copyrights are good for the duration of the author’s life and for seventy years beyond their death. As of this writing, it is generally safe to use quotes from authors published before 1928.
If, however, you want to use quotes in your writing by someone who is still living, the situation becomes a little trickier. In order to stay within the realm of legality, you will need to obtain written permission from the author, the publisher or the agent.
Let’s say, for example, that you want to use a quote from a book that was published five years ago. The copyright is still in place, which means that you need to obtain permission. Some people say that you can use small quotes without asking, though I wouldn’t recommend this. The law is fuzzy on the precise number of words you can use before violating copyright, so why tempt fate?
To get permission to use the quote in your own writing, send a letter (preferably by certified mail) to the publisher. Sometimes, there will be a specific address in the front matter of the book; if not, you can look the publisher up on the web and send the letter to their Permissions Department.
Usually, if the publisher agrees to allow you to use the quote in your writing, they will send you a contractual form that you must sign and return. They will then return it signed to you and you’ll have the permission that you requested. If the publisher does not want you to use the quote, you will receive a reply to that end, usually within four-to-six weeks.
Sometimes, getting permission to use quotes in your writing isn’t quite that simple. What if, for example, you know the quote you want to use, but you have no idea who said it (and when)? In this case, you’ll have to do a little research.
There are plenty if Internet repositories of quotes online, so you might try looking there first. Websites like quotationspage.com and quoteland.com have thousands of quotes in their databases. You can also try typing a line of the quote into a search engine, such as Google, and seeing if it pops up with the author’s name.
Once you have your quote and its owner, you can find the publication easier and contact them directly. You’ll also be able to find out when the quote was published, and thus, whether or not you need to obtain permission at all.
Another instance that might occur is if you want to use a quote in your writing that was spoken rather than written-for example, by a celebrity. In this case, you will need to contact the celebrity’s agent or PR firm to obtain the permission you need. While published quotes are relatively easy to get permission for, celebrity quotes are little bit harder. You may receive a letter in the mail that tells you that you can’t use the quote in your writing at all.
Regardless of the medium, be careful how you word your permissions letter. Give as many details as possible, including the full scope of the quote you want to use and how it will be used in your writing. If you already have a publisher, give the publisher or agent that information, and be sure to specify that the quote will not be used out of context or in a defamatory manner.