Have you ever seen a book that opens with an introductory quote? Something atmospheric from a Smiths song or an MLK, Jr., quote? What about interstitial graphs, doodles, illustrations, or recipes? What about a book cover image or a plate of Renaissance paintings?


All of these things necessitated a specific permission from the copyright holder of that borrowed material for them to be included in the book. If you are writing a book yourself and want to include anything you didn’t create yourself, this post is a general starting point for what you need to know.


“But what if it’s just a few words?” you ask, sweet, naïve author. “These song lyrics are all over the Internet for free, what about then?”


Unless something is 1) a fact, or 2) in the public domain (defined below), you will always have to seek permission, especially if it’s going to be included in a book published for profit. Always.


This includes published and unpublished work; stuff on the Internet; poems or song lyrics of any length; photographs (even your own) that feature models; quotes; and visual material of any kind. If it was created by someone else, there are few exceptions to having to seek permission to publish it.



How to Find a Copyright Holder


For Material Found in Books: When an author signs a book contract, in addition to selling the publisher the right to publish the full and complete text as a book, the author is selling the right to publish excerpts of that text, which means that for any quotes, graphs, line drawings, etc., originating in a book, you should seek permission from the publisher first. Most publishers have permission guidelines on their website.


When a book goes out of print (meaning there are no more copies of the book available for sale, and the publisher is not producing more), authors often request to revert the publication rights to their book, which puts these excerpt rights back in the author’s hands. If a publisher no longer holds rights, they’ll often direct you back to the author or the author’s estate.


For Material Found in Magazines/Newspapers/Journals: Publications likes these often have shorter shelf lives, and publishing rights usually revert back to the author fairly quickly. This is subject to the magazine’s policies and the contract between the author and magazine. I’d suggest contacting the author first, as he/she will likely hold the longer-term reprint rights.


For When You’re Struggling to Find the Copyright Holder: If the copyright owner isn’t immediately apparent, especially regarding older, perennial estates, a simple search of an estate’s website might have permission information. Or try Googling “On the Road Kerouac permission,” for example, and seeing what pops up. Google Books (those sneaky devils) have scanned a lot of books, including their acknowledgment sections, and I often find “Published with the permission of…” somewhere in those pages, which has helped me track down a copyright holder in the past.


To search the records of the U.S. Copyright Office for anything published after 1978, they’ve posted a searchable version of their catalog here.


In the event that you’ve searched relentlessly for a copyright holder and they either can’t be found or aren’t responding to your requests, if you keep the material in your book without permission, you are leaving yourself legally vulnerable. Your publisher will likely ask you to take this quote out of your book, but some will be satisfied by your best efforts—just know that in this latter scenario, you could be sued for copyright infringement.



When You DON’T Need Permission:


Something falls into the public domain when its intellectual ownership has expired, it’s publically available, and/or it’s not possible to copyright. Examples from Wikipedia include: the Bible, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Newtonian Physics, math formulae, etc.


U.S. copyright law has been modified and extended enough to make it totally squirrelly and hard to understand, but here’s the gist:


–          If a work was published before 1923, it has fallen into the public domain and you no longer need permission to quote or reproduce it.

–          If a work was published after 1963, it is almost surely under copyright and you will need to seek permission

–          If a work was published in the tricky window of 1923-1963, its copyright status depends on whether copyright was renewed, date of the author’s death, nationality of the author, etc. Here’s a great catalog of the copyright status of authors writing within this window to use as a starting point.


Regarding copyright laws abroad, each country has different rules about when a work can fall into the public domain, but the international community agreed in 1886 to create a minimum window for copyright protection. The Berne Convention is an international agreement signed by 167 countries (including the U.S., European Union countries, and most United Nation members), which states that written works are copyrighted until at least 50 years after the author’s death. Individual countries may make this term longer, as have the US and European Union.


For a more exhaustive resource for discovering the copyright status of a work published abroad, check this site out.





When you’ve contracted with a traditional house to publish your book, you will be expected to request, clear, and pay for all permissions. This can be an expensive, time-consuming prospect, so make sure you’re ready to go to bat for each and every quote. Nothing’s more effective in answering the question “Is this important to me?” than “Am I willing to pay for this?”


A few words or lines are often a standardized, nominal amount ($25-$100) depending on how the copyright holder has decided to handle these types of requests. Larger permissions will cost more, but you can lobby to keep the price low, and I’ve found that a lot of permissions managers will work with you to make the permission possible. $50 in a permission manager’s pocket is better than $0, amiright?


A successful strategy that I’ve used in the past is to explain off the bat: “My advance for this book was small, and if it’s at all possible to grant this permission gratis, I’d be hugely appreciative.” Asking nicely: works like a charm.



Get It in Writing!


A handshake is not a successful legal strategy. If someone has granted you permission to quote their work, get it in writing!! Your publisher will usually have a permissions form for you to use, if you ask, but you don’t have to use their form as long as your written requests for permission match all the rights you’ve granted to your publisher. If you’ve granted world rights in all book formats, you need permission to reprint that Bill Watterson quote throughout the world in all book formats.


An easy way to put this is: “I am requesting permission for nonexclusive world rights in all languages, editions, and formats (including electronic formats).”


Also ask how the copyright holder would like to be credited, include the fee you’ve agreed to pay, and have them agree in writing. A signature would be ideal, but is not totally necessary.





Gathering and processing permissions is a drag. It feels granular and petty and bureaucratic, and no one likes working on them, including the folks granting permission. So start early! Getting permission from multiple sources is a months-long process, and you don’t want to run up against your delivery date and have to take out the quotes you don’t have permission for.


It’s okay to nudge! Most publishers estimate a 6-week turnaround, so check in at the 6-week mark.


Just because it’s on the Internet, the author’s dead, or you moved some words around doesn’t make it free! Giving credit does not equal permission!


For more info and resources on fair use, good-faith efforts, and the digitization of books, click here.


For more info on copyright renewals, click here.


And for a fantastic, much more thorough resource than this blog post, click here.






Update: We’re closing comments on this post because of the extensive, complicated, sometimes-litigious gray area involved in permissions. Each permission requires different advice, and it’s best to get answers through a legal professional. Good luck!






Disclaimer: The above is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal and/or financial advice in any way. For advice specific to your own legal, financial, or other professional matters, please contact a licensed professional in those areas. In other words: “I ain’t your lawyer, so don’t sue me.”