Copyrights: Obtaining Permission (or not)

clipartSince making the decision just over a year ago to leave my small publisher and re-release my books under my own imprint, I’ve learned quite a lot about copyrights, both my own and those of other writers, musicians, photographers, etc. For example, just because it’s free doesn’t mean you can use it  Along those same lines, as discussed in my post Copyrights and Copywrongs, fair use may not always apply.

With this new knowledge in hand, I had to make some changes not only in my previous books, but also in one of my current works in progress. I wanted to use a quote from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, just a couple of lines, but wanted to make sure I followed the rules and obtained the appropriate permissions. I started by searching the Library of Congress database, but soon found that to be of little help. Gibran’s works have been published in so many places under so many formats, I was unable to pin down a copyright holder with any certainty.

My next step was Google, which led to a Wikipedia article stating that upon his death, Gibran instructed royalties and copyrights to his works be left to his hometown of Bsharri, Lebanon. Interesting. The article further stated that the Gibran National Committee (GNC) in Bsharri manages the Gibran Museum and functions as the holder of the copyright.

More searching led to the Gibran Museum’s website, which included a “contact us” link. This seemed like a good start, so I composed a letter describing who I was and what I wanted permission to do and sent it off, halfway expecting to never hear back.

As it turned out, I did hear back. A very nice woman responded the very next day, saying, “If you wish to publish and/or distribute in the U.S., please contact Random House Permission Department (which has exclusive publishing rights) to get the necessary permission.” This “copyright holder” thing can apparently get quite complicated.

More searching turned up the Random House Permission Department, where I again had to identify who I was and what I hoped to do. I also had to answer a series of questions such as, “How many copies of your book do you plan to sell?”

I did the best I could with the form and hit “submit.” Shortly after, I received an automatically generated email stating my request was in the queue and I should hear back in eight weeks.

Three months later, I received a reply stating, in part, “Please note that I will have to obtain approval from the estate before I can proceed with this permission.”

Okay. Do they know exactly which of them owns the copyright?

They also needed more information from me, including publication date (easy enough), format (hardcover/paperback – also doable), price (got it), page count (okay), and print run.

The contact from Random House stated that she understood from my initial request I would be self-publishing using print-on-demand (POD), and that because of that, I was only able to provide an estimated print run, but that this wouldn’t do. She needed specific numbers because the contracts are based on print run, format, and term (five years).

I thought that was interesting, because unless I’m mistaken, in essence that means anyone using POD for paperbacks (the method typically used by self-published authors) stands a good chance of having a copyright permissions request from Random House rejected.

Having no idea how many print books I might sell, and afraid to estimate a number that would more than likely be wildly off, I filed her reply away and decided that although I do love the quote, the book will be just fine without it.

Author: Melinda Clayton

Melinda Clayton is the author of the Cedar Hollow series, as well as a self-publishing guide. Clayton has published numerous articles and short stories in various print and online magazines. She has an Ed.D. in Special Education Administration and is a licensed psychotherapist in the states of Florida and Colorado. Lear more about Melinda at her Amazon author page

28 thoughts on “Copyrights: Obtaining Permission (or not)”

  1. I went through a similar process with Simon & Schuster to use excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” in my novel “united states.” I did receive the permission in a fairly timely manner; however, with the proviso I pay a $150 fee, which I did. Just so authors know, there may be a fee for use.

  2. Melinda,

    Thanks for the interesting post. Your experience is what I’ve been concerned about in seeking rights permissions from big corporations. I had one quote I wanted to use, from the song Strange Fruit, which I initially thought was public domain. Once I realized only the specific Ella Fitzgerald recording was public domain and it had different copyright holders for lyrics vs music and I’d need to go to a specific clearinghouse to query. After looking at the site and the various forms you had to fill out, I just bagged on it as it seemed like it would be a time suck that wasn’t worth the effort, especially when you’re able to hyperlink in an ebook.

    If the initial search indicates it’s a small company or one individual, it’s probably worth making a little effort (I’d certainly respond quickly and without oodles of forms if someone sent me a request). However, once you start dealing with companies that ave “legal” and “permissions” departments, it might be a diminishing returns situation

    1. Very true, RJ. In my case, I’d love to use the quote, but it would have only gone in the very beginning of the book, before Ch.1. It’s just not worth the hassle. I’ll either find something else, or do without.

  3. In reading about copyright permissions, etc., I noted that quotes in the public domain were permissible for use, providing that the quoted words were “in quotes” and attributed to the author–especially if still living. The issue of copyrighted material is rather confusing, though, and makes me wonder if I should reconsider the quotes I’ve used at the beginning of some of my novels. After all, I don’t want to get sued over a few words!

    1. Linda, you might want to take a look at the “Copyrights and Copywrongs” article hyperlinked in the article above. If you’re sure it’s in the public domain you should be fine, but if you’re unsure, I’d stay far away from it.

  4. Quite a journey, Melinda. Too bad it ended up being a fact-finding mission instead of getting what you wanted, but valuable all the same. I think John’s idea is the simplest: stick to dead people from earlier centuries. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Apologies if this turns into a double post – it went a little crazy on me just then! Anyway, thanks, Melissa, and I think you’re right. In one book I quoted one of my own characters – maybe I’ll just stick to that. 🙂

  6. I ran into the same problem getting permission for a quote in a book which would initially be POD. I wanted to use 17 words of a song by Ice Cube. His publisher needed to know how many copies, and the permission had to be renewed annually (and they wanted £100 for it!). I rewrote the scene. Stupid thing is, I am fairly sure that if I had been able to ask Mr Cube himself he would just have said ‘what the hell, go for it’! It was only 17 words and would probably have been a nice little plug for a record that last charted nearly twenty years ago. I know artists have to be paid for their creations, but sometimes I think these legal departments are not really acting in the best interests of anyone but themselves, justifying their own existences by generating paper.

    1. I agree, Alan. Anytime I’ve been able to contact the artist directly (such as for some of the music used in my video trailers) they’ve been incredibly helpful and extremely open to letting me use it, provided I give credit, of course. But I guess with all the piracy these days, artists have to be vigilant – hence the tough legal departments.

  7. Good topic. This is a major hassles in some books (like collections where you want to use writing or artwork) and publishing (which people are starting to realize is the most dysfunctional industry on the planet) make if far harder than it should be.
    When you think about it, a credited citation is FREE ADVERTISING!!!! Yet they treat you a burglar and want money from you. The idea that citing something is worth $150 is insane, but so many go that way. I wanted to include cartoons in an anthology of humor I did and ran into the same falling brick wall. ONE syndicate granted me permission and thanked me for, essentially, promoting them. The rest did the same Chinese fire drill you’ve described.
    What’s more frustrating is when the AUTHOR WANTS YOU TO USE IT but the publisher prevents that or soaks you for it.
    The sheer stupidity and lawyer-think of it adds frustration to the series of hoops them want you to jump through.

    1. Thanks, Lin. I understand their need to be protective – I hate it when I find pirated versions of my book online – but I agree that some of the hoop-jumping seems a little extreme.

      1. But piracy isn’t their concern here, is it? We aren’t trying to steal their work and sell it…. we’re putting a little tiny piece of it somwhere and giving them a mention or a link. A lot of this comes from lawyer’s measuring ding-a-lings, frankly. For awhile there it was this one-up challenge among rights attourneys to find things to enjoin. My favorite was a little guerilla documentary that was interviewing a street hustler–and you could faintly hear a song from the radio in an apartment. So they hit them with a $20,000 fee for violating their copyright. Which would, of course, pretty much put an end to any extemporaneous filming… a car goes by and you infringed some singer?????
        It’s slacked off, but the entire us-vs.-them circle the wagons mentality remains. And they are doing it against material that promotes their writers. That the writers WANT to see used.

        1. I have to admit if someone copied a quote from one of my books, giving proper attribution, I’d be flattered. But I know there are many who disagree with me. I know this, because I once made that statement in a writers’ group and the response took me by surprise. Given that experience, I can honestly say not all writers want to see their work used, and (as I learned during that discussion) it’s not up to me to make that decision for them without obtaining their permission. Debating from that side, the issue isn’t how MANY words or how MUCH money, it’s that someone is using any at all without asking. I don’t feel that way personally, but I have to respect that other people do (and the law tends to back them up.)

          The other supporting argument was that we should have the creativity and ability to create our own work without borrowing – even a few words – from someone else. This one, I think, could be poked full of holes, but it would take a lot more room than we have here. 😉

  8. Hi Melinda,
    In my books I have used quotations that are on sites on the Internet. In quotations, attributed, at the beginning of the chapter. If the quotes are used on many Internet sites how are they getting away with it? They are selling pop up ads all over the same page.
    I never realized I couldn’t quote one line.

    1. If they’re in the public domain there’s not an issue, but a lot of sites use quotes that aren’t in the public domain. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that those sites are banking on the “fair use” clause. The Copyrights and Copywrongs post above covers the criteria you have to meet before you can claim “fair use.” In a nutshell, it’s murky. For example, if you use a quote from an author in your own commercial endeavor (such as a book you’re selling), you may not fall under “fair use.” I would think the same would apply for those sites, if they’re making money from ads on the site. But maybe they’ve just decided it’s worth the risk.

  9. The stupid thing is that copyright laws allow for “fair use”. I would understand that “fair use” includes a citation, provided it is properly attributed (not lines and lines of text, obviously).

    If this fair use was not legal, most of the academic work would be simply impossible, as any decent publication that does not reference other academic work is simply considered “not serious”.

    In that context, one sentence (or the 17 words that Alan mentions) fall under the “fair usage” if you properly attribute it. That is so in the vast majority of countries. However, in the U.S. there seems either to be an excessive fear of being sued(despite the “fair usage” clause in US copyright law) or an excess of greed by the legal departments. And I ask: where is the limit? 17 words? 15? 5? Could i get sued for using 3 words from a song? It quickly becomes ridiculous.

    I personally believe that quoting one or perhaps even two lines from an author with attribution does fall under “fair usage”. And, as has been pointed out in previous comments, it’s actually free publicity.

    I am not personally worried about copyright infringement if I make a small quote for my POD work as long as I can reasonably justify it as “fair usage”. Longer quotations are of course different – I had to find the copyright holder for some longer citations and it took me months to sort it out. The copyright structure today makes it basically impossible for a small publisher to use any kind of copyrighter material.

    One further question that comes to mind is the one regarding unknown copyright holders. As stated by the article, must copyright holders are basically unfindable. Now, from my point of view, that should not be an issue for “fair usage”. And even if you have doubts, any court will accept an argument of “due diligence” if you have unsuccessfully tried to find the copyright holder and can prove it, yet used the text because you were unable to find the owner. Again, I’m talking about a limited scope, not entire chapters.

    So let’s put things in context. I know that there a lot of big corporations screaming “copyright violation” if you dare quoting one line of their work, but the law (including US Law) DOES allow for fair use. However, a lot of people are scared simply at the idea that a few words will get them sued.

    Now, I don’t mind paying even for a quote, provided it’s reasonable. On the other hand, if at a certain moment I am abused with a high price for a quote, I will write it down at the end of the book. And let them sue me for saying the truth!

    Oh, and BTW, the £100 they asked for does probably does not even cover the internal accounting that is required for that amount in a big corporation. So stupid are these things…

    I am a strong believer in copyrights, but I feel that the guys that have hoarded copyrights don’t understand neither literature nor how the market has evolved with POD. I intended to use a nice picture I saw on the Internet for one of my e-books. After finally finding out who the copyright holder was (took me two weeks), he asked for $2000 for 5 years… when the e-book is sold for $1! That’s crazy. Finally, I used a similar picture from NASA -for free- and gave them the proper credit, as requested by their website. Now, who do you think gets the publicity? About whom am I going to talk nicely and whom am I going to blast as a greedy corporation?

    What we would need is a public register of copyrights, as well as reasonable copyright licensing conditions. Otherwise what we are achieving is stifling of creativity. It is sad that writers should be more worried about lawsuits that about making a brilliant piece of art, using a few drops from other authors to adorn their work.

    1. Lots of food for thought, Ramon; thanks for sharing. Unfortunately, here in the U.S. even fair use has its limits. My last post on Indies Unlimited was an interview with an attorney who attempted to clarify some of these issues (click on the Copyrights and Copywrongs link above to get to it, if interested.) What we learned is that fair use has some limitations, particularly when the quote is not being used for educational or nonprofit purposes. It carries a risk; some people feel the risk is worth it (I tend to be a coward about such things.) It’s a big, murky, mess, this whole copyright topic.

    2. Ramon, it’s not the length of the quote that matters in the US; it’s whether you’re planning to use the quote in something that will make *you* money. The copyright holders want compensation for the money they believe you will make from their original work. The fact that they are wildly optimistic about your potential profit doesn’t matter to them. 😉

  10. Ugh, such an odyssey but still nothing at the end of it. 🙁 Still, you took the only sensible option. Imagine if you’d flubbed the permission, had a runaway bestseller, and lost everything in a court case with Random House. -shiver-

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