First, you have to understand the doctrine of Fair Use. You don’t need ANYONE’S permission to make fair use of copyrighted material in something you’re writing. Fair use is of necessity an elastic notion. If you quote 14 lines from a full-length book (like Ishmael,) this is almost certainly going to be regarded as fair use, because it’s such a small portion of the book.

Scholars and critics would be handcuffed if they had to ask permission for every brief quote they wanted to use. But if you quote 14 lines from a sonnet, then you’re quoting the entire sonnet—and this would not be considered fair use. The same would be true if you were quoting lines from a song by Bob Dylan or the Beatles.

Another issue would be the kind of use you intend to make of the quoted material. For example, if you intended to create and market a poster using 14 lines quoted from Ishmael, this would not be considered fair use; for that, you would need permission.

There is no precise definition of fair use (and never will or can be). Each instance has to be examined on its own merits. A hundred words quoted from a 250- page book will almost certainly be viewed as fair use (which, in practical terms, means that the publisher would look foolish taking you to court over it).

A thousand words quoted from a 250-page book becomes a little iffy. The lawyers will probably say, “Better be on the safe side and ask for permission.” Ten thousand words quoted from a 250-page book goes beyond iffy to certainty (here you’re talking about more than 10% of the whole book!). If you’re going to quote ten thousand words, obviously you need permission.

If your quote goes beyond fair use, then you must have permission from the publisher—not the author. This is because the author’s contract with the publisher gives the publisher an exclusive license to publish the work. In other words, the author can’t give the publisher an exclusive right to publish a book and then turn around and give you the right to quote half of that book.

If your quote goes beyond fair use, then you must have permission from the publisher—but only if the work in which you use the quote IS ACTUALLY GOING TO BE PUBLISHED (either by you or by a publisher). In other words, if you want to copy ten thousand words of Ishmael into your diary, for your own reference and edification, no one (in the real world) cares.

But if Random House decides to publish your diary (or if you decide to publish it on your website), then you would need permission. The same is true of school papers. If you want to quote from one of my essays in a school paper, you need not ask permission (though it is assumed that appropriate credit will be given). If The New Yorker decides it wants to publish your school paper, then you might need to ask permission; the rules of fair use would come into play here.

For more about the concept of fair use, you might want to examine an electronic version of Fair Use of Copyrighted Works, a pamphlet published by CETUS (Consortium for Educational Technology for University Systems).

NOTE: For additional information see Questions About Permissions and Use of Website Material in the FAQ section of this website.

ID: 506
posted: 18 Feb 2001
updated: 05 May 2002