A Writer’s Guide to Permissions and Fair Use

when you need permission - fair use guidelines

Andrea Costa Photography / Flickr

Whenever you decide to directly quote, excerpt, or reproduce someone else’s work in your own—whether that’s a book, blog, magazine article, or something else—you have to consider, for each use, whether or not it’s necessary to seek explicit, legal permission from the work’s creator or owner.

Unfortunately, quoting or excerpting someone else’s work falls into one of the grayest areas of copyright law. There is no legal rule stipulating what quantity is OK to use without seeking permission from the owner or creator of the material. Major legal battles have been fought over this question, but there is still no black-and-white rule.

For understandable reasons, you might be seeking a “rule” to apply to reduce your risk or reduce time spent worrying about it. Probably the biggest “rule” that you’ll find—if you’re searching online or asking around—is: “Ask explicit permission for everything beyond X.”

What constitutes “X” depends on whom you ask. Some people say 300 words. Some say one line. Some say 10% of the word count.

But any rules you find are based on a general institutional guideline or a person’s experience, as well as their overall comfort level with the risk involved in directly quoting and excerpting work. That’s why opinions and guidelines vary so much. Furthermore, each and every instance of quoting/excerpting the same work may have a different answer as to whether you need permission.

So there is no one rule you can apply, only principles. So I hope to provide some clarity on those principles in this post.

When do you NOT need to seek permission?

You do not need to seek permission for work that’s in the public domain. This isn’t always a simple matter to determine, but any work published before 1923 is in the public domain. Some works published after 1923 are also in the public domain. Read this guide from Stanford about how to determine if a work is in the public domain.

You also do not need to seek permission when you’re simply mentioning the title or author of a work. It’s like citing a fact. Any time you state unadorned facts—like a list of the 50 states in the United States—you are not infringing on anyone’s copyright.

It’s also fine to link to something online from your website, blog, or publication. Linking does not require permission.

Finally, if your use falls within “fair use,” you do not need permission. This is where we enter the trickiest area of all when it comes to permissions.

What constitutes “fair use” and thus doesn’t require permission?

There are four criteria for determining fair use, which sounds tidy, but it’s not. These criteria are vague and open to interpretation. Ultimately, when disagreement arises over what constitutes fair use, it’s up to the courts to make a decision.

The four criteria are:

  1. The purpose and character of the use. For example, a distinction is often made between commercial and not-for-profit/educational use. If the purpose of your work is commercial (to make money), that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly in violation of fair use. But it makes your case less sympathetic if you’re borrowing a lot of someone else’s work to prop up your own commercial venture.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work. Facts cannot be copyrighted. More creative or imaginative works generally get the strongest protection.
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the entire quoted work. The law does not offer any percentage or word count here that we can go by. That’s because if the portion quoted is considered the most valuable part of the work, you may be violating fair use. That said, most publishers’ guidelines for authors offer a rule of thumb; at the publisher I worked at, that guideline was 200-300 words from a book-length work.
  4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the quoted work. If your use of the original work affects the likelihood that people will buy the original work, you can be in violation of fair use. That is: If you quote the material extensively, or in a way that the original source would no longer be required, then you’re possibly affecting the market for the quoted work. (Don’t confuse this criteria with the purpose of reviews or criticism. If a negative review would dissuade people from buying the source, this is not related to the fair use discussion in this post.)

To further explore what these four criteria mean in practice, be sure to read this excellent article by attorney Howard Zaharoff that originally appeared in Writer’s Digest magazine:  “A Writers’ Guide to Fair Use.”

In practice, if you’re only quoting a few lines from a full-length book, you are most likely within fair use guidelines, and do not need to seek permission. But understand this is a gray area, and every case is different.

When should you seek permission?

If you use someone’s copyrighted material in such a way that it might not be considered fair use, then you should ask for explicit permission. Remember that crediting the source does not remove the obligation to seek permission. It is expected that you always credit your source regardless of fair use; otherwise, you are plagiarizing.

To seek permission means contacting the copyright owner of the work (or their publisher or agent), and requesting permission to use the work. Most publishers have a formal process that requires a signed contract. Often, you are charged a fee for the use, anywhere from a few dollars to thousands of dollars. I’ve written a separate post explaining the process for seeking permissions, with a sample request form. 

But there is an unfortunate Catch-22 here. Once you start asking for permission—to reduce your risk—that gives the creator/owner of the work the opportunity to ask for money or refuse to give permission, even in cases where the use would actually be considered fair. So you can get taken advantage of if you’re overly cautious.

How to avoid the necessity of seeking permission

The best way to avoid seeking permission is to not quote or excerpt another person’s copyrighted work. Some believe that paraphrasing or summarizing the original—rather than quoting it—can get you off the hook, and in some cases, this may be acceptable. But be aware you can still be found in violation of fair use, and guilty of copyright infringement, when paraphrasing.

You can also try to restrict yourself to using work that is licensed and available under Creative Commons—which does not require you to seek permission if your use abides by certain guidelines. Learn more about Creative Commons.

What about using work from websites, blogs, or in other digital mediums?

The same rules apply to work published online as in more formal contexts, such as print books or magazines, but attitudes tend to be more lax on the Internet. When bloggers (or others) aggregate, repurpose, or otherwise excerpt copyrighted work, they typically view such use as “sharing” or “publicity” for the original author rather than as a copyright violation, especially if it’s for noncommercial or educational purposes. I’m not talking about wholesale piracy here, but about extensive excerpting or aggregating that would not be considered OK otherwise. In short, it’s a controversial issue.

What about using images, art, or other types of media?

The same rules apply to all types of work, whether written or visual.

Typically, you have to pay licensing or royalty fees for any photos or artwork you want to use in your own work. If you can’t find or contact the rights holder for an image, and it’s not in the public domain, then you cannot use it in your own work. You need explicit permission.

However, more and more images are being issued by rights holders under Creative Commons rather than traditional copyright. To search for such images, you can look under the “Creative Commons” category at Flickr or VisualHunt.

Note: If you find “rights-free images,” that doesn’t mean they are free to use. It simply means they are usually cheaper to pay for and overall less of a hassle.

No permission is needed to mention song titles, movie titles, names, etc.

You do not need permission to include song titles, movie titles, TV show titles—any kind of title—in your work. You can also include the names of places, things, events, and people in your work without asking permission. These are facts.

But: be very careful when quoting song lyrics and poetry

Because songs and poems are so short, it’s dangerous to use even 1 line without asking for permission, even if you think the use could be considered fair. However, it’s still fine to use song titles, poem titles, artist names, band names, movie titles, etc.

If you need personalized assistance

With more authors publishing independently than ever, this can be a tough issue to navigate without having an experienced editor or agent to guide you. If you need help, I recommend my colleague Kelly Figueroa-Ray, who has experience in permissions and proper use of citations.

For more help

Posted in Business for Writers and tagged , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of

[…] jQuery("#errors*").hide(); window.location= data.themeInternalUrl; } }); } janefriedman.com – Today, 2:58 […]

L.L. Barkat

This is why all our T. S. Poetry Press works are Creative Commons. We *want* people to celebrate and share our words. 

Now, does that mean we want someone to upload a whole book of ours and sell it under a different title, as is happening in some cases through Kindle? Of course not. 

But it is an honor to be quoted from, even whole poems. And if a speaker wants to copy a chapter of one of our books and use it in a *paid* presentation, without having to seek permission, why not? 

Amy Jo Lauber

Thank you Jane, this is something for which I definitely needed guidance!

Kathryn Craft

My question is about the epigraphs I’d like to use to begin each of the four sections of my novel. They are quotes of 100 words or less, excerpted from copyrighted book-length works. Is citing them enough? My purpose is not educational, as I hope to make money, but this is fiction, lol. I’m thinking of  all the NF quotes that began the chapters of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees”–would she have paid for all those? Thanks, Jane!


I love your articles!  You post the most helpful information!
I’m wondering if one must obtain permission to use the name of a place of business (for example: a restaurant or grocery store) in one’s book?
Thank you!


As usual, Jane, very helpful.  I shared it on Twitter and FB.

Eat, Walk, Write: An American Senior’s Year of Adventure in Paris and Tuscany by Boyd Lemon is now up on Kindle for $2.99. http://amzn.to/eatwalkwrite

Boyd Lemon

When are we going to see a novel from you?

Cathy Shouse
In my mystery, the protagonist volunteers to read aloud to a children’s classroom in an elementary school. I have her saying that she’s reading the book “Freckle Juice.” I was thinking last night about whether that is okay. I didn’t mention the author Judy Blume nor do I have any excerpts from the book. However, I was thinking about revising and having the protag read an excerpt. I much prefer using details. If this whole situation is going to be problematic when I send the manuscript to an agent, maybe I should just be vague and not say the name… Read more »

Thanks so much. I’m wondering about using a quote from a person famous or otherwise in a book. I’m working on a book in which at the beginning of each chapter I would like to begin it with a quote. Is that fair use? Does it need to be credited somewhere in the book?

Lisa J Lord

I am wondering about recipes from cookbooks. Would I need permission to include exact recipes or recipe modifications? My intent in using them at all on my blog is, in part, to provide recognition and possibly business for the authors in question. But it sure would be more helpful for my readers to see the actual recipe rather than just a reference to the book.


Does this mean that the photos  and other images I’ve been snagging via Google Images for my blog are verboten? I always caption them with the source from which they come. 

My blog doesn’t even run ads at this point, but I’m not ruling it out in the future. 

James T Kelly

Great post, Janes, thanks for sharing it. Might you know anyone who could help me with a general permissions query? I’m hoping to quote (at length) Brontë poems that were unpublished in their lifetimes but later published by others and I’m not sure if they would count as public domain.

Thanks again for the post!

Angela Ackerman

So helpful! We are running into this with Dictionary definitions and we definitely do not want to do something that would break copyright laws. Thanks for this!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Donna McBroom-Theriot
Donna McBroom-Theriot

New follower. Looking forward to reading your blog. 

Marjorie Thelen

Thank you, Jane for this clarification. Well, it’s clearer than it was for me.  I’ve been trying to find information about copyrighting.  I’m interested in using poems from other poets on my web site, giving credit, of course and it looks like I’m going to have to contact the publisher to do so.  Marjorie

Amy Jo Lauber

I’ve actually referenced Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book “Simple Abundance” a few times in my book, and did write for permission but have not heard back. Should this hold up my publishing? I’ve referenced 4 quotes from her book.


I’m pretty sure I know what you’re going to say, but am going to ask anyway.
My adult character Liz, in trying to break the ice with extremely shy
teenager Lucy, talks about some of her favorite scenes from the Harry
Potter books and movies when she sees Lucy carrying one of the books. She might do something like use the “Alohamora” door opening spell once, in order to make Lucy and her sister laugh.
Would Jo Rowling fry me for this? I don’t at all mind getting permission, but have no money to spare.

Head Ant

Where would lyrics fall? I wanted to use a portion of a hymn in my work.


Fabulous post, and very timely for me. My question is about giving attribution. I’m seeking permissions for a self-published author. He’s using a poem, a short song lyric, some pictures,  a couple New Yorker cartoons, and excerpts from another author’s book. So far I’ve gotten permission for everything except the poem, some free and some for a fee. My question is, how do we credit all these different sources? I’ve seen song lyrics credited on the title page. Is this where all the attributions should go? Or perhaps a page thanking the various authors/songwriters/publishers?

Book Bits #127 – Writer’s links, including reviews and the ‘All Hell Breaks Loose: The Elmore Leonard Rule-Breaking Contest’ | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions

[…] When Do You Need to Secure Permissions? by Jane Friedman – “With more authors publishing independently than ever, I’m hearing […]


Brava! Ever a treat to witness your brain working, Jane. From conference question to useful “boil-down” in the blink of an eye. Always sage. Always timely. Always articulate. Always concise. You. Know. How. To. Ship. Ship. Ship! 🙂


[…] Friedman has a fantastic post When You Need to Secure Permissions and while you are over at Jane’s MAKE SURE you check out Porter Anderson’s Writing on […]

Julie Farrar

This is all extremely helpful and I’m going to bookmark it for future use.  However, I’m curious why it is ok to quote a line or two of poetry or from a book under fair use laws but you ALWAYS have to get permission to use any song lyrics.


I have a question – I would like to publish an e-book  (for profit), and in one of the chapters use a slogan from a popular baby company, along with the wording from 2 of their commercials.  Is this something I would need to get permission for? I checked their website but could not find anything, and looked all over the internet but could not find information on this type of permission.


I’ve been confused by this too. On sites like Corbis.com or Istockphoto.com, how do you know which ones you have to pay for (to use for a book cover) or not?  Do you still need permission to use photos off of sites like these?


If you want to include quotes from people you have interviewed yourself, do you need any legal paperwork (do they have to sign anything) giving permission to be in the book? I have a short questionnaire I handed out where women wrote responses down. They knew it was for my book, but I do not have actual signatures. They were told to just write their first name and last initial on the questionnaire. 


This is amazingly helpful–and, sort of ironically, free.  Thank you for your help.

A little off the subject, but what about art images used for a lecture?  I assume it’s OK in an educautional setting, such as a college or for a cultural institution, but what about doing the same lecture (for profit), in a private setting, like someone’s home?


[…] *When do You Need to Secure Permissions : Absolutely “good to know” information from Jane Friedman that should prove handy to all of us hoping to avoid future litigation. […]


[…] information about when you need to secure permissions from Jane Friedman.   Very concise and clear explanation.  A must read for all […]

Misty Krasawski

Wow! Great information here. Question: I’m running an online membership series which includes a “book study.” The ladies are encouraged to purchase and read the books obviously; there’s a link to Amazon at my site. I was planning to use quotes from the books in my downloadable printables as questions/thinking points … Do I need to get permission first? Thanks so much!


[…] When Do You Need to Secure Permissions? from Jane Friedman. […]


What if you’re incorporating song lyrics into a piece? Who do you need to get permission from? Only the songwriter? The recording artist?

Judy Fishel

A comment on song lyrics: I assume it’s fair use for lines from hymns written 100 years ago.

Question about quotes used in a book: If I use many short quotes – 2-5 lines each, but use a dozen or so quotes from the same book – does the total number of words need to fit in the 200-300 range or does that apply to a single long quote?

Your answers and all the questions on this site are very helpful.


[…] here. You should expect to seek permission. But that sounds a lot like work, doesn’t it? (Jane Friedman, a publishing and media expert at University of Cincinnati, wrote a great article on this very subject recently.) Many authors I’ve worked with are shocked when I suggest they’d […]


Do you need approval to use the name of a song, movie, actor’s name, or names of products that are or were for sale, in a book you’re writing?
Also do you need approval to use a quote like example: “Go ahead make my day” that became popular from a movie and is all over the internet?

How about using film stills as artwork for a book cover?  I’m thinking of using a film still from an old movie (about 1961) as the backdrop for the book cover.  According to the University of Chicago Press (http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/copyright.html), “Frame captures, also called film stills, are generally considered to fall in the realm of fair use for scholarly publishing.”  Fair use would be great.  But my concern is that while my book (a minor book to be published by a minor press) is scholarly, the press is strictly speaking a commercial venture, and the text of the book is not… Read more »
Arturo ocampo

my wife is writing a book, its a how-to-book on applying to college. She wants to quote some info from a the College Board website, just a few lines, on what colleges look for. Is this ok. She also wants to include the link to the college board website, are there any problems with this? are there issues of trademark infringement?  In general in a  how-to-type book, are there issues of trademark or copyright just in citing domain names/websites ?


Does one need permission to mention an actual public event and/or trade show in a fictional work, such as a regular annual event ex: Republican National Convention, as an idea.



I would like to include a short quote– 6 words– from Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction in my non-fiction book. I clearly state in my book “As Marcellus Wallace said in Pulp Fiction “I’m …… far from okay.””

Do I need to get permission to use that quote?

Thank you for the information.


[…] far, I receive the most questions from writers on copyright, mainly due to this post: When Do You Need to Secure Permissions? So I feel very lucky to have found an intellectual property lawyer, Brad Frazer, who is friendly […]


[…] When Do You Need to Secure Permissions? | Jane Friedman. Rate this:Share this:Google +1TwitterFacebookStumbleUponRedditMoreTumblrLinkedInDiggEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in Blog, Writing and tagged book sales, books, Kimmie, Kimmie Thomas, new writers, publishing, Thomas, writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment […]


[…] Securing Permissions to use SCHTUFF in Books […]


[…] Jane Friedman on Permissions […]


[…] on using a particular, do your research. A good place to start is Jane Friedman’s article on using permissions. Proceed to Part 11: ‘Preparing the manuscript for coding’, or return to the article […]


[…] since I am no expert, I found this excellent article by Jane Friedman which really helps clarify the subject of fair use and when it is and is not necessary to gain […]


[…] Friedman has a great article on her blog called “When Do You Need to Secure Permissions?“ I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read this article if you’re planning to […]


[…] When Do You Need to Secure Permissions? | Jane Friedman. […]