They Say It’s Easier to Ask for Forgiveness Than Permission

But they would be wrong.

We’ve talked about quoting people—living and dead—and making sure we’ve done it correctly, but now let’s talk about what’s permissible to quote.

We all have a song that changed life as we knew it, right? Profound, man. It came along at a time when we were hurting or happy and it had lyrics that perfectly encapsulated that feeling—and still does. (For me, it’s “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne.) Powerful stuff. But you may not quote those lyrics in your book without getting permission from the copyright holder, often a publishing company—and that will cost you both time and money.

Here’s an article about a British author’s experience with using songs to set a mood in his novel. I must say I was pretty shocked that he had to pay for one line (his publisher was very cautious). You see, there is such a thing as the Fair Use Doctrine, which, according to the The Chicago Manual of Style, “allows authors to quote from other authors’ work … for purposes of review or criticism or to illustrate or buttress their own points”—without seeking permission. (You still must transcribe the work accurately and correctly cite the copyright source.)

However, while the doctrine establishes a test for fair use (here’s a very informative look at that from Joel Friedlander), it does not go so far as to establish exact limits. Chicago says, “As a general rule, one should never quote more than a few contiguous paragraphs of prose or lines of poetry at a time,” but this is in the section on copyright permissions. Chicago clearly believes you should expect to seek permission, even for epigraphs and “the limited quotation of song lyrics, poetry, and the like in the context of an interior monologue or fictional narrative.”

Pay attention 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 better get started. Remember, too, permission seeking is the author’s responsibility (not his publisher, nor his editor!) and any fees are his responsibility also. (Most Bible publishers offer a blank permission that requires no formal permission document, just a credit on the copyright page.)

All of the publishers I’ve worked with have their own rules of thumb for quoting lyrics or poetry, and they are very, very conservative. They don’t want to be sued.

And neither do you. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission? Nah. Better safe than sorry!

Tweet:  They say it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. But they would be wrong.
Tweet:  You should expect to seek permission. Better safe than sorry.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , | Bookmark the permalink | Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

4 Comments

  1. Michelle Ule says:

    I learned this years ago when writing my novel Transcriptions. What to do?

    I wrote my own lyrics and titles. Not the same as using something everyone knew, but I was able to give a sense of what I intended without having to get permission from anyone buy myself.

    Much easier. Good point about the Bible quotes, too. Even in fiction?

    • Jamie says:

      Yes, even in fiction! Regarding songs, I tell people just mention the title (“Jumping Jack Flash” was playing on the stereo as the boys rolled the dice) — many readers will hear the song in their heads without ever needing to read the lyrics.

  2. April Line says:

    Lovely post & artful linking, J!

    Except I would never apply the saying, “easier to ask forgiveness than get permission” to a copyright issue, but I WOULD, and have in professional settings… Sometimes, visionaries just need to act! :-)

  3. […] Authors who’ve worked with me on their nonfiction manuscripts know I can be a real stickler about citing sources and making sure we know where the information came from. Plagiarism is one thing; we know what it […]

  4. […] this poem,” I wrote in a margin note. “Also, if it is still under copyright, you can only quote two lines without seeking permission from the copyright holder.” Then I did some preliminary research. A brief google yielded credits […]

  5. […] quotes (“No, You May Not Use Brainyquote.com as Your Source”), getting permission to quote (“They Say It’s Easier to Ask for Forgiveness Than Permission”), and citing your sources (“Let’s Talk About Notes”)—but I haven’t written about many […]

  6. […] ✱ seeking permission for material you want to quote (“They Say It’s Easier to Ask for Forgiveness Than Permission”) […]

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Giving Credit Where It’s Due on 24 March, 2013 at 9:22 am

    […] Authors who’ve worked with me on their nonfiction manuscripts know I can be a real stickler about citing sources and making sure we know where the information came from. Plagiarism is one thing; we know what it […]

  2. By The Internet Can Be Unreliable on 11 July, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    […] this poem,” I wrote in a margin note. “Also, if it is still under copyright, you can only quote two lines without seeking permission from the copyright holder.” Then I did some preliminary research. A brief google yielded credits […]

  3. By Legal Issues (An Update, Sort Of*) on 5 June, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    […] quotes (“No, You May Not Use Brainyquote.com as Your Source”), getting permission to quote (“They Say It’s Easier to Ask for Forgiveness Than Permission”), and citing your sources (“Let’s Talk About Notes”)—but I haven’t written about many […]

  4. By Someone Is Wrong on the Internet!* (An Update) on 31 July, 2014 at 8:24 am

    […] ✱ seeking permission for material you want to quote (“They Say It’s Easier to Ask for Forgiveness Than Permission”) […]