Copyright? Using others’ words or artwork in your book.


To avoid the whole issue just read or hear what others say and retell it in your words. That would be the text of your book.

But there can be wee pitffalls. If you are quoting them directly, you must tell the reader who they are, and usually the context of the statement. Others often know more than you do about your topic. As long as you use their information fairly and accurately, write away. It’s your book.

If it’s just text and it’s dated (say 100 years plus), don’t worry. It’s good to inject a bit of Lincoln or Pedro II to add some heft and authority! Or if it’s from public figures and was said publicly, even yesterday, you can almost always use it, too. Particularly if it appeared in a government-issued publication, which is almost never copyright protected, and thus anything from it is yours to “borrow.”

Just plain facts are the bricks of your book building. Copyright only protects the words in the order in which they are used. It might say in copyrighted print “The Mayans at their peak never saw horses. Horses had long since disappeared in the Americas, and their descendants only reappeared when the first Spaniards reached the Mayan Empire, or what remained of it.” (To see if the book, in this case, is copyrighted, look for the symbol on the volta face page, the page almost always following the opening title page.) You can use any fact from those two sentences any way you wish, but you can’t use the words in that order because how the words are used together is the artistic creation that the copyright protects. You can quote it (as I have done) but you then must indicate where it came from.

Or you can paraphrase it. Thank God. For example, you might say that Arthur McLouse, pre-historian of the Americas, contends that Mayans never saw or knew of horses before the Spaniards arrived in the Yucatan. You needn’t use his name or the reference either. You can just say that Mayans never saw or knew of horses before the Spaniards arrived.

But if you are going to pluck the actual words out of copyrighted or privately-owned sources, you will may have to get permission to quote that material. It isn’t clear if it’s necessary if you only use a limited amount of text, but getting permission is almost certain if you use images, photos, graphs, charts, software, and other artwork from a copyrighted source.

Also, titles and interviews you personally conduct need no copyright release, but poetry, music, lyrics, and personal letters definitely do.

What doesn’t need someone else’s copyright or permission to write about are ideas, even if the idea came from something you read about in another’s book. So you could write a book (or even part of a book) about the Mayans and horses, or anything you wish.

Mind you, I’m not a literary attorney so if doubt lingers you may want to get legitimate legal advice.

If you request that permission to use a copyrighted element, how might a “Permission to Quote” letter look? See for an example that we have used for decades.

Writing the book itself is the most important thing, and copyrighting it yourself is the next step once it’s in print. (Get TX forms from the Library of Congress. Do it digitally; see Google for the sources.) I talk a lot more about this in How to Get Your Book Published in Minutes and Marketed Worldwide in Days.

I hope that helps.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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