Quoting Other People in Your Book

So you found an amazing famous quote for the back cover, the perfect excerpt from another book for your Introduction and the results of a clinical study that supports your main point.

Can you use any of it?


The answer to that question reminds me of my early PR training for Caterpillar.

Our instructor was telling the story of a journalist who was confused by a news release she’d gotten by another company. The release was the finest display of corporate speak with no real “news” or clarity.

Confused, the journalist called the corporate spokesperson for more information. The company’s reply?

“We were intentionally vague for reasons we don’t want to go into.”

And thus the lesson here…

Our government has been intentionally vague with no apparent good reason.

I’m not an attorney and I can’t give you legal advice but I will steer you in some useful direction to help you make an informed decision.

The first thing to remember is that in ALL cases, you must at least cite your source appropriately. Generally that’s using MLA, APA, or Chicago Manual of Style…depending on your content and use. (Purdue University has a great website on that here: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/949/01/)

If you’re working with us to publish your book, your editor will likely note which stories or content in your work should be cited and/or permission sought. (Of course, he/she is NOT an attorney either.) Unfortunately the editor is often only involved after you’ve written your manuscript, which may be a little later than you’d like to acquire permission for an idea you’ve wrapped a whole chapter around.

Can you share someone else’s work if you cite the source, or do you need their permission?

Let’s first rule out a few items for which you DON’T need permission:

  • If the work was created before 1923, it’s considered Public Domain and you’re free and clear to use it.
  • If it’s pure unadorned fact…such as a list of our nation’s presidents, the title of a book, or the names of people.
  • If you’re linking to or referencing another person or work. Thus, I wouldn’t need permission to reference a book I like, but I MAY need permission to reference a paragraph from it.
  • For the “fair use” of content to comment on, criticize, or use as a parody. If you’re writing a review, sharing information from a media report, or preparing for a legal battle, or appearing as a guest on Saturday Night Live – you’re probably going to fall under the terms of “Fair Use” (see more at: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/what-is-fair-use/).

After that, it gets harder to interpret when you need to go beyond citation and acquire permission to include it.

You may need permission when…

…you’re swiping their most valuable content or using more than just a sentence or two. There’s no hard rule here and many legal cases have been fought over how much is too much but if it’s the summary of their whole premise, or a chunk of their best text, you probably need permission.

…your book or material is intended for commercial use. By sharing someone’s work, you could be implying they support you, your view, or your content and/or your business. You may feel like you’re doing them a favor promoting their work, but they may disagree, or feel like they should be financially compensated for any profit you make using their material.

…the combination of their material plus yours negates the need for someone to read/invest in the original body of work or the creator’s other material. Basically you’ve robbed their sale for your advantage and that’s a no-no.

…your goal is to become rich or famous with your book. The more successful you are, the more money you’ll make, and the more likely your content is to get noticed and questioned. You don’t want to get called out on the Today Show for sharing someone else’s work without permission.

Tip: I also recommend adopting the practice of having anyone who contributes to your book (by interview, Foreword, testimonial, guest contribution, photos, etc.) sign a release or waiver acknowledging their permission for you to use the material without expectation of reimbursement in any form. You’ll find more on that inside The BOOK IT! Authority Lab.

You can’t always tell when you’ve surpassed the point of moving from citation to needing full permission. If you error on the side of caution and seek permission from the author or publisher, you run the risk of a long waiting period only to have your request denied or to get a request for financial compensation. Furthermore, you may waste time seeking permission for something that would have been fine with a citation.

Frustrating, isn’t it? Ultimately, it’s a judgement call based on how averse to risk you are.

Here’s the website I recommend to if you want to do more research: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/introduction/getting-permission/

As for me, I prefer to error on the side of caution and I’m increasingly stingy about what I use.

The important thing to remember is that ultimately the same law that frustrates us is also designed to protect us and our content too.

Error on the side of treating others as you would want to be treated; ask when you should ask; or rewrite your content to avoid the issue altogether.





About The Author

Nicole Gebhardt

Nicole Gebhardt is the CEO of Niche Pressworks publishing, a Marketing Strategist and Certified Publishing Coach. Through marketing consulting and book publishing she helps Speakers, Coaches, Consultants and Business Leaders create compelling and effective messages to inspire people to action. Over the last 24 years she has helped build brands, expand influence, and equip authors who change the world.

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