Can I Use Other People's Quotes in My Book?

writing Nov 14, 2020

It’s important to understand key copyright concepts if you want to use other people’s quotes in your books. In some cases, you’ll need to ask permission from the owner of the content. The owner can refuse permission for you to reproduce their content, or they might require you to pay a fee. In other cases, you won’t need to ask for permission or pay a fee.

First, it’s important to understand the two broad types of quotes – extracts and standalone.

Using Extracts from Larger Works
A quote can be an extract from a larger work, like a paragraph or diagram from a book or report, or some lyrics from the verse of a song. These types of quotes are protected by copyright. Whether or not you need to obtain permission to reproduce quotes like these depends upon whether the content you want to quote is a “substantial part” of the original work.

The term “substantial part” is defined by the Australian Copyright Council as being “important, essential or distinctive”. Part of the work may be “substantial” even if it’s small, especially if it has been produced using a high degree of skill, labour or research. For example, a court once held that an author reproducing 4 lines of a 32 line Rudyard Kipling poem without permission was an infringement of copyright.

Simply acknowledging the source of a quote in your book isn’t enough when you’re using extracts that are regarded as “substantial parts” of copyright works. Formal permission is required. You’ll need to ask for permission to reproduce the content from the copyright owner, who may not necessarily be the source of the quote. For example, it could be the publisher of the work, not the author who actually wrote the content.

Under current Australian law, copyright usually expires 70 years after the death of the author.

 Using Standalone Quotes
A quote can also be a standalone phrase or a couple of sentences, like some profound words from an expert or a celebrity. These types of quotes are not protected by copyright and you can use them in your book.

 What are the Penalties for infringing Copyright?
Copyright owners can take legal action against you if you use “substantial parts” of their copyright works without permission. For example, they may:

  • take out an injunction that prevents you from continuing to sell your book and/or forces you to dispose of any existing stock that contains the infringing content.
  • demand financial compensation from you.

 The Bottom Line
It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you want to reproduce copyright work, it’s best to ask for permission first from the copyright owner so that you have peace of mind. The worst they can say is ‘no’. If they do, at least you know where you stand. Many copyright owners give permission though and will be happy simply to have their work acknowledged. If they want to charge a fee, you can decide whether their content is worth paying for or not.