A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use and Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter

when you need permission - fair use guidelines

Andrea Costa Photography / Flickr

Note from Jane: This post was originally published several years ago, but has been updated and expanded.

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.

However, 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 as of Jan. 1, 2019, any work published before 1924 is in the public domain. (As of Jan. 1, 2020, it will be any work published before 1925, and so on.)

Some works published after 1924 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 to emphasize: every case is different. Also, much depends on your risk tolerance. To eliminate all possible risk, then it’s best to either ask for permission or eliminate use of the copyrighted material in your own work. Here’s a flowchart that can help you evaluate what you might need to ask permission for.

Do you need to request permission flowchart

Three important caveats about this chart

  • Nothing can stop someone from suing you if you use their copyrighted work in your published work.
  • The only way your use of copyright is tested is by way of a lawsuit. That is, there is no general policing of copyright. Therefore, how you handle copyrighted content depends on how risk averse you are. If you decide not to seek permission because you plan to use a fair use argument, be prepared with the best-possible case to defend your use of the copyrighted content in the event that you are sued.
  • If you intend to produce material that is accessible worldwide and in digital form (such as content on the internet, ebooks, etc), and if you are using content considered in the public domain in the United States, you should double-check whether the content is also in the public domain in other countries. You can learn more about this issue in The Public Domain by Stephen Fishman.

If you’re concerned about your risk, you can also search for the rights owner’s name and the keyword “lawsuit” or “copyright” to see if they’ve tried to sue anyone. However, just because someone hasn’t sued yet doesn’t mean they won’t sue you.

If you seek permission, you need to identify the rights holder

Once you’ve decided to seek permission, the next task, and one of the most difficult, is identifying who currently holds the copyright or licensing to the work. It will not always be clear who the copyright holder is, or if the work is even under copyright. Here are your starting points.

  • First, verify the actual source of the text. Sometimes writers use quotes from Goodreads or other online sources without verifying the accuracy of those quotes. (As someone who is misattributed on Goodreads, I can confirm: people are misattributed all the time.) If you don’t know the source, and you don’t know the length of the source work, and you don’t know if what you are quoting is the “heart” of the work, then you are putting yourself at risk of infringement.
  • If you’re seeking permission to quote from a book, look on the copyright page for the rights holder; it’s usually the author. However, assuming the book is currently in print and on sale, normally you contact the publisher for permission. You can also try contacting the author or the author’s literary agent or estate. (Generally, it’s best to go to whomever seems the most accessible and responsive.)
  • If the book is out of print (sometimes you can tell because editions are only available for sale from third parties on Amazon), or if the publisher is out of business or otherwise unreachable, you should try to contact the author, assuming they are listed as the rights holder on the copyright page.
  • You can also check government records. Most published books, as well as other materials, have been officially registered with the US Copyright Office. Here is an excellent guide from Stanford on how to search the government records.
  • For photo or image permissions: Where does the photo appear? If it’s in a newspaper, magazine, or an online publication, you should seek permission from the publication if the photo is taken by one of their staff photographers or otherwise created by staff. If you’ve found the photo online, you need to figure out where it originated from and/or who it’s originally credited to. (Try using Google Image Search.) When in doubt, seek permission from the photographer, keeping in mind that many photographers work through large-scale agencies such as Getty for licensing and permissions. Photo permissions can get complex quickly if they feature models (you may need a model release in addition to permission) or trademarked products. Here is an excellent, in-depth guide if you need it: Can I Use That Image?

Generally, you or your publisher will want nonexclusive world rights to the quoted material. “Nonexclusive” means you’re not preventing the copyright owner from doing whatever they want with the original material; “world rights” means you have the ability to distribute and sell your own work, with the quoted material, anywhere in the world, which is almost always a necessity given the digital world we live in.

Also, permission is generally granted for a specific print run or period of time. For example, if you seek permission for a 5,000-copy print run, you’ll need to secure permission a second time if you go back to press. (And if you publish a second edition, you’ll need to seek permission again.)

If you’re under contract with a publisher

Just about every traditional publisher provides their authors with a permissions form to use for their project (be sure to ask if you haven’t received one!), but if you’re a self-publishing author, or you’re working with a new or inexperienced house, you may need to create your own.

To help you get started, I’ve created a sample permissions letter you can customize; it will be especially helpful if you’re contacting authors or individuals for permission. It will be less necessary if you’re contacting publishers, who often have their own form that you need to sign or complete.

To request permission from a publisher, visit their website and look for the Permissions or Rights department. Here are links to the New York publishers’ rights departments, with instructions on how to request permission.

Will you be charged for permission?

It’s hard to say, but when I worked at a mid-size publisher, we advised authors to be prepared to pay $1,000–$3,000 for all necessary permissions fees if they were quoting regularly and at length. (Publishers don’t cover permissions fees for authors, except in special cases.) If you’re seeking permission for use that is nonprofit or educational in nature, the fees may be lower or waived.

What if you don’t get a response or the conditions are unreasonable?

That’s unfortunate, but there is little you can do. If you can’t wait to hear back, or if you can’t afford the fees, you should not use the work in your own. However, there is something known as a “good faith search” option. If you’ve gone above and beyond in your efforts to seek permission, but cannot determine the copyright holder, reach the copyright holder, or get a response from a copyright holder (and you have documented it), this will be weighed as part of the penalty for infringement. This is not protection, however, from being sued or being found guilty of infringement.

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. Ideas are not protected by copyright, but the expression of those ideas is protected. So, putting something in your own words or paraphrasing is usually okay, as long as it’s not too close to the way the original idea was expressed.

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 seeking permission to use 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.

Does fair use and permissions apply to 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 want to consult with someone on permissions

I recommend my colleagues at Copy Write Consultants, who have experience in permissions and proper use of citations.

For more help

Sample Permissions Letter

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

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 publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

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. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

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.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Thank you for explaining this to us. I have been searching, and this is the clearest explanation I have found. I am certainly going to use your sample letter. I’m seeking permission to use a paragraph from a couple of old (1917-1926) newspapers (with credit, of course), and I think I can adapt your letter to my needs. (My middle grade novel is set during World War I.) I hope I get a positive response!

LaTanya Davis

Thank you so much! This is just what I’ve been looking for to get permissions for a memoir that I am self-publushing.

[…] If you need to request permissions from an author or publisher, here are general guidelines, plus a sample letter you can customize.  […]

Alexis O'Neill

You’ve given us a really fabulous resource, Jane! Thanks for clarifying so much about the permissions process.

[…] Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter […]


Jane, this is fantastic information. Thank you!!

[…] When you publish there are many details you need to track, especially if you self-publish. Roz Morris answers the question: should you use the free CreateSpace ISBN or your own ISBN? Sometimes you need to get permission to use lyrics, prose, or poetry from other artists in your work. Jane Friedman explains how to request permission and gives a sample letter. […]


Hi Jane, I have been reading some of your past blogs on this subject–including the comments and replies (your patience seems to know no bounds.) I have a writing blog, and with each post I take a still from a famous movie (ranging from “The Bells” to “Star Wars” to “Pulp fiction”) and add a “funny” tag line. The picture is not relevant to the blog but the tag line I create is. The first question I have to I need permission for the blog? Secondly, I eventual hope to take one group of blogs (Quick 5 point guide to… Read more »


Thank you Jane.


Hi Jane thank you for your article. I am currently writing a book so this helps a lot. I have a question however.

The source that I am requesting to use quotes from is non-fiction. If i do not get permissions, Is it possible to summarize the information in my own words instead of using direct quotations and then use a citation. This is sort of a loop hole instead of directly quoting the source.

It is based on the implication that direct quotes are more valuable than citing facts.



Thank you, I think you are right but just to be more clear, In my particular case, there is a martial arts sect called Tzu Dawn. Basically 2 students have studied directly with the master and both students wrote their own separate books with their experiences studying the school. I am a fanatic of the art. So my book compiles the information gathered from both of the student’s books in order to further explain my own concepts and ideas within the system, im taking people to the next level. Both of the students books are non-fiction. i think the problem… Read more »


Hi Jane, do you know if I am allowed to quote people from public interviews in my book?

A person was speaking on a YouTube video free to the public, can i quote them in my book?


Hi Jane,
We are collecting stories about a certain subject, all from people who have had experiences ranging from humorous to frightening with this subject. We plan to publish the brief (300 words or less) stories without any names, i.e., as anonymous experiences.

Since we are not using names, do we need written permission to publish these stories?

Thank you.


Thank you for taking the time to help us.

Larry Bailey

Hello Miss Jane, As a middle school English teacher, I am currently working on a project with a 7th-grade student. We are doing a great deal of research in addition to our own “leg work” (interviews, phone calls, etc.). We want to know if we can use quotes from the internet from, say, comments made on a news show by the host. We also want to know if “reviews” or “comments” from writers would also be fair game to use. We have contacted at least one newspaper and one book author and requested use of information, and, after they discovered… Read more »

Kaden Moeller

I have a colossal question, one of utmost importance/personal quest. I am trying (mostly clumsily) to contact/convince an author/creator of a character to utilize his character. What would be the proper way to go about this? I am unsure about requesting use because I don’t really know if I should just offer money up front, or just ask how much? The character hasn’t seen use since 2001 and I do not see the author ever utilizing the character in the near future. How would I go about convincing him? Note, I am not very well off monetarily. Should I send… Read more »

[…] I’ve written a separate post explaining the process for seeking permissions, with a sample request form. […]

Elizabeth McBride

Thank you for this good information, Jane. I am wondering if you have recommendations about the right time to get someone to review one’s manuscript who is a specialist in a field. Do you do that before submitting your work to an agent or editor, or only after someone has accepted it for publication? Do you have suggestions for how such a presentation should go? Thank you so much!


I have a question about my dedication page. I would like to use a quote from either Dr. Seuss or J.K. Rowling and I’m not sure if I need to seek permission. It’s the only quote in my book and only on the dedication page and will be properly credited of course. Does this cover the fair use rule?

Viktoria Taylor-Richardson

Hi Jane,

I am publishing a book which is a combination of research papers completed during graduate school at Liberty University. The research papers where based upon the a specific subject with the books being the primary supporting resource. Quotes from the same authors but different books where used throughout the manuscript. What is the best way to go about obtaining permission from the authors?

aron gersh

Hey Jane, I give myself permission to quote myself:”Thank you for your Awesomely helpful site. I send a grateful and gi-normous Hug”

[…] Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter […]

Sara Alfrey

I am currently in the process of writing a book that contains letters that others have written. There will be letters that I have asked of someone to write for the purpose of being in a book. Would I need any type of written permission to be able to publish this work?


I am trying to get permission to use quotes in an art work from a woman who was previously in the public eye (at NASA) and no longer is. I tried to contact her via her company but it is apparently defunct. She also has/had a foundation but the website hasn’t been updated since 2004 leading me to believe this is also defunct. I have no way of knowing how to contact her. I don’t even know if I need permission but I’d rather have it and not need it.


Michael Kohler

Hi Jane. I noticed that other people had asked about getting permission from people who submit stories for a book they are going to publish (like Chicken Soup For The Soul). Is there a form that you have that I could use? I would be happy to pay for it. Even a script or service where they can sign a PDF digitally would be great. Thanks. Michael

John Fraser

Jane.. Thank you. I’ve read a few of your posts. I’ve enjoyed all of them. Questions / concerns regarding eBooks. ( I hope this isn’t too many questions for one post. ) I know permissions are required to link to a webpage. However, I’m planning on writing a “How To” eBook, to be sold online, for profit. Hypothetical: How to Photography. I write a section on Yousuf Karsh portrait techniques. My information is based on my interpretation ( in my words ) of what I’ve read on his website / various books and my own personal practices. At the end… Read more »

John Fraser

Thank you for the quick response.

If I were to do a rough draft, and you’re going to analyze it. Do I list it here, or should I eMail it?

thanks again.

John Fraser

Thanks Jane…

Apprecieate the link.


Carianna Morris

Hi Jane,
I am needing to use a quote by Marianne Williamson as part of the script for a commercial promoting education. What time of rights should I request? A one time right, exclusive, non exclusive… so confused. Thanks!

Carianna Morris

*what type of rights

Robin Cantrell

Hello, thanks for your information. I want to use the name of McGraw-Hill’s reading series for elementary schools to identify some original work that I want to sell on Teachers Pay Teachers. I sent a formal request to their rights dept. and they never responded. Many other sellers on TpT sell their own work but identify it by Wonders so others will know what it supplements. How to get them to respond. Thanks.

[…] “Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter” […]

Vincent Berg

Wonderful advice. Do you have a similar sample form for unpublished photographers or artists? I often encounter images I’d love to use for a book cover, but don’t know how to reach out, especially if they’ve never sold anything before. My requests seem to unnerve them. I’ve spoken to several authors who routinely ask artists on deviantart if they can use theirs, and receive it free of charge for a simple acknowledgment. Clearly I’m doing something wrong with my approach.

Laura Christensen

Dear Jane, This is a question about whether when to ask permission. Here’s a bit about my project: I am a visual artist building a book project with several authors. The book will be like an anthology of short writings, each paired with an image of my art. Several authors are writing new stories and poems in response to my art. I also want to include new artworks that I make in response to already published texts. I plan to approach possible publishers in February and March, but I want to complete at least one new artwork in response to… Read more »


I am working on writing a book, I want to interview people about the subject I am writing about, do I need a letter for them to sign giving me permission to print their responses in my book, and if I quote their writings from one of their books, do I need permission for that as well


This is so so helpful. I did permissions recently for a client with 200 or more images in her book and it can be a huge challenge. My biggest suggestion is that authors should try to limit copyright content as much as possible because it can be very very costly. But if you have to do it, this is a great guide.

[…] you use those song lyrics or novel excerpt in your own book? Jane Friedman discusses the basics of getting permissions for use, plus provides a sample permissions […]

[…] Source: A Basic Guide to Getting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter […]

Trisa Hugo

Hi Jane
Thank you so much for your wonderful, informative articles. If I want to share the flowchart and info on this, I do not see an option to reblog this? Is it possible for me to post some of the info, especially the flowchart with credit to you and a link to your website?

Michael Lee

On my upcoming website, I would like to feature the complete inside front jacket blurb of several favorite books. The books would link to Amazon and other booksellers if the user wants to buy. Do I need permission to quote the jacket marketing material? Or must I laboriously write my own blurb version? I do see several commercial sites online (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) which include such blurbs, which I imagine are direct from the publisher. Do they all get a “blanket” permission to do that? Thanks.

Michael Lee

That’s awesome to hear, and a big relief! 🙂 Is this because the marketing copy essentially goes by different permission rules (perhaps since it also benefits the source — the publisher — at least indirectly)? Thanks again.

Michael Lee

Thanks for your insights. I love your blog and read it religiously! 🙂

Ann R

Hi, Jane,
Thank you for this and all of the great resources you’ve given us. I’m writing a book of cryptograms, using quotations from mystery novels. Each quote will be 1-2 sentences long, and the accurate sources and authors will be included. I don’t think I need permissions to use this material, but I’d like to have your opinion. Thanks.

Ann R

Thanks so much for your reply. Looks like the issue is more complicated than I realized.

[…] https://janefriedman.com/sample-permission-letter/ How to seek permission to include in your work. […]

[…] in your book? It's possible you may need to secure permission to do so. To help you figure this out Jane Friedman and GSF's Kelly Figueroa-Ray developed a great flowchart to help you evaluate what you might need […]

Kristina Mendoza

This is exactly what I’m looking for, for quite a few days now. Thank you so much for sharing it to us! This information is really handy in the future.

[…] Friedman has published a Basic Guide to Getting Permissions that all authors should keep as a reference.  She also explains why you need to get permissions, […]

Suzanne Newnham

Wonderful informative article Jane and thanks for the additional info to the various comments. I’d just like to give my experience – when seeking permissions (2011) for my book all were readily given, however in a couple of instances I needed to rewrite without the quoted sections though I offered acknowledgements to the authors which was accepted (as a thank you because researching large quantities of their work helped in providing background for sections of my book). Why didn’t I quote even though I had the author/publisher’s permission? By quoting, my book would not have been permitted for sale in… Read more »


Hi Jane, great website, I’m in the process of completing my first book and I’m currently seeking permission to use some quotes in my book, if I don’t get the permission I’ll just reduce the amount of quotes and paraphrase some of them. I saw your post from 5 years ago on fair use, and I have a question about it. Basically, if I use many quotes from one author but they’re from different books and different publishers, will the amount matter if it’s from one author? For example if I take quotes for Carl Jung adding up to 50… Read more »


Hi Jane, thanks for the reply, most of the quotes are scientific facts, I think it’ll be fine as facts can’t be copyrighted. And I’m also using them to validate my theories.


Thank you so much for your information. I am in the process of starting my self publishing business as a sole proprietorship. I wonder if I can get permissions for international translation and reprint from the authors and publishers as a sole proprietor publisher. If you have time, please share your opinion. Thank you so much again.


Hi Jane! Great blog, I just finished my first book and I’m in the process of getting permission for the quotes I’m using, which is a long process, I’ve noticed that getting approval from scientific books tends to be easier than other non-fiction books. The latter is asking for payment for usage and the former tends to be free. The book I’m working on is an eclectic study, I’m merging different fields of study. In order to validate theories, I’m using quotes from professionals from different fields to reveal similarities. If one of the authors’ quotes are removed, it won’t… Read more »


Hi Jane,

Thanks for the fast reply, do you offer a service where someone just reads the manuscript and lets me know where I stand?

Stevie Turner

Thanks Jane. May I share the link to this post in my Friday Roundup this week please?

Judy Gill

11/30/2017 I am writing a fictional comedy/play–I live in a gated senior citizen retirement community in Florida. Everyone on the committee, cast or in the audience is basically between 55 and 90. The play will be produced in April 2018 twice–Maximum audience 200 if a sell out. We serve refreshments and after expenses usually net between $400 and $1,000 which is donated to charity. The play I’m writing is about two popular 50/60 TV stars, (Lucy and Ethyl,) and what would happen if they moved to our community. I hope there are no reasons why this cannot be done? Secondly,… Read more »


Thank you for explaining well about permission or consent letter format. But I have query if i want to use online material from the filed of psychology then the same rule will be applicable.


Alfonso Colasuonno

Hi Jane. I’ve just finished co-writing a non-fiction book and am in the process of (hopefully) landing a literary agent. Would you recommend that I wait until landing representation/a publisher before requesting permissions for art and quotes, or should I start the process now? Thanks!

Alfonso Colasuonno

Thanks, Jane!