A number of years ago, I worked with a client who was quoting others for inspiration in her book, and as a matter of professionalism, we investigated what the legal impact of this might be. Here’s a brief summary of what was discovered on our trip down Copyright Alley.
Now, let me pause here for the part where I remind you, once again, that nothing you read in my blog (or any other blog) is a substitute for quality legal advice. What you are about to read is meant as a series of interesting (dare I suggest entertaining?) observations, and nothing more. I can’t be held responsible for anything anyone may or may not do with stuff they read here. In fact, let us say that this post is meant to encourage Authors in a similar situation to seek legal advice, and avoid any sleepless nights.
The good news is that almost all of what we discovered worked in the author’s favour, and not against her. But you may find some of this surprising.
– An American lawyer friend that I asked agreed that anybody who bothers to spend the time and money to sue for using snippets of their wisdom is generally considered to be lacking in foresight. (I believe his exact word was “Dork”.) Most people are happy to be quoted, because it helps to raise their media profile.
– If you use less than 300 words in the total work, and less than 150 words in a stream, you’re covered under “Fair Use“.
– Fair Use mostly applies to teaching and other non-profit situations, but can be used for writing that is done for profit if the amount of text quoted is small.
– If you are using material prior to 1923, you’re after copyright expiration, which is much safer but still not foolproof.
– In the case of my client, the author was quoting small amounts from a large number of people, so this ratio helped to augment her Fair Use argument, as she’s not selectively targeting any one person.
– Song lyrics and music are a very dangerous and convoluted area, and it’s just best to just not go there. (Don’t quote Lennon!)
– Quoting someone for their cleverness or wisdom is not the same as quoting their theories or other intellectual property. My client was just using uplifting quotes about life philosophy, which any bright person might also know, and not quoting their scientific observations or commenting on their technology. Big difference.
– To be on the safe side, always credit the speaker immediately after you quote their words, not in an appendix or other reference later in the book.
– Writers quoting “wise words” rather than technology or statistics still generally seem to be more concerned with being attacked for accuracy in their wording and attributions than permissions. This was unexpected, but observed in each place that we sought a precedent.
– You can’t copyright your spoken words, and a variety of other items related to titles or marketing, but you can copyright complete sections of a book or other written work, as in a chapter or explanation of a theory. In other words, it’s been put out there by another person, clearly crediting them in the public eye, so you can’t copy that.
– There’s a surprising lack of precedents out there for this sort of thing. I referred to three books chock full of quotes from a variety of people, and there were no permissions published or other items to address copyright whatsoever. They are all rightly more concerned with protecting their copyright on their own books and layout with the quotes in them than with the quotes themselves.
– Lawyers who deal with this sort of thing spend most of their time worrying about academic and corporate intellectual property issues, and this kind of thing rarely, if ever, comes up. I admit that out of anything we discovered, this reassured me the most.
In the end, my client decided on a compromise as her strategic approach. She sent each “quotee” a flattering personal letter asking for their permission to use their quote, with a specific response date. She made sure that there was a line on the copyright page that thanked all the people that have been quoted. As far as I know, there was not a single negative response, although the Office of the Dalai Lama did respond with a beautiful letter, granting official permission!
She also modified her disclaimer in the front of the book to include a statement about the efforts she made to avert copyright problems, and a promise to remove any from future editions if there is an objection that is resolved in good faith between herself and the objector. Talk about good karma! I don’t think she could do much better than that – even the lawyer friend agreed.