Tips For Writers About Permissions, Fair Use, And Copyright

Writer’s Relief
4 min readMay 18, 2021

No matter what genre you write in, at some point you may find yourself wanting to quote someone else’s work. Unless the quote is in the public domain, using a direct quote from another book, poem, song, movie, blog, or other source requires formal permission from the original author or rightsholder. But how do you know when you need permission, and what’s the best way to make the request? Here are some tips that can help writers with questions about permissions, fair use, and copyright.

Caveat: We are not lawyers and do not give advice about legal questions; this article about permissions, fair use, and copyright is for information only. Speak with an attorney about all legal issues.

When You Do — And Don’t — Need To Request Formal Permission

There are some uses that fall under “fair use,” which permits limited quoting of source material without having to seek permission from the copyright holder. Here are some general guidelines:

Short quotes. Generally, you don’t need permission for short quotes. However, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what constitutes “short.” If you’re using a line or less from the original work, you probably don’t need to seek permission. But if the piece you’re quoting from is especially short (like a song or poem), ask yourself whether the quote is more than 10% of the total work. If the answer is yes, it might be best to get formal permission.

Songs, poems, shows, or movies. Mentioning certain songs or movies can be crucial to grounding your work. You can include the title of a song, movie, poem, etc., fairly and freely — but if you want to quote material from that work, it’s more likely you’ll need permission. Again, if it’s a very short song or poem, you might need to get permission even if you’re only using a single line or phrase.

Paraphrased material. Though another person’s own words may be copyrighted, the general idea or sentiment expressed in those words is not. So if you’re able to paraphrase the line (or few lines) you want to quote, you may be able to avoid seeking permission — so long as your phrasing is meaningfully different from the source material. Changing a couple of articles or pronouns won’t make enough of a…

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