Do you have a song lyric you plan to use as your epigraph?

Is there a piece of artwork you’d like to see between the pages of your book?

Do you want a poem to be inserted into the narrative?

Have you excerpted a long passage from another book?

Do you use trademarked brand names?

Are there tables or diagrams, schematics or sketches that are not your original work that you hope to include?

What about those photographs? If you didn’t take them or pay a professional photographer, you will need written copyright permission (and signed releases from any persons who are represented and recognizable in the image).

It is important to know about your obligation to seek and obtain copyright permission for the inclusion of material that is not your original work in a book manuscript. Here are five common myths I have heard frequently.

Myth #1: Fair Use under the US Copyright Law pertains to non-fiction and memoir. But it does not. Scholars may exercise this exemption from copyright permissions and waivers from fees because their purpose is educational, but book authors have a commercial intent and character to the use of copyrighted materials.

Myth #2: If I am just using one line/verse of a song, it’s just sampling and I don’t need copyright permission. Wrong. Recent court cases suggest even Tweets can be copyrighted. There is no minimum limit on the number of characters, words, or lines under which written permission is not required. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) is the leader in performance royalties for songwriters.

Myth #3: My publisher will do all that for me. Incorrect. Your contract with your publisher will stipulate your responsibility to secure copyright permissions before the book goes to print. They might help you find the right language for your written request or even provide letterhead and a generic form to assist you in securing copyright permissions. A few publishers will do it for you, for a fee, deducted from your advance/royalties.

Myth #4: If I took the picture in the museum of this painting, then I own copyright and can use my photograph. Bzzzz. Wrong again. The photograph is of a copyrighted original work of art. The museum needs to be contacted to determine the copyright holder and how to obtain permission. The museum may also stipulate the size and quality of the image and the caption, and copyright credit. Expect to pay a fee.

Myth #5: As long as I have a bibliography and/or footnotes/endnotes, I’ll be fine. Sorry. Ignorance is no defense on copyright infringements. Be sure you vet your manuscript for any and all material that are copyrighted, patented, or trademarked. Your publishing contract requires your due diligence.

Ominous? Not really.

Copyright law protects authors, including you.

The good news is that there are plenty of times when copyright is granted willingly and graciously without any fees. And you will be pleasantly surprised at how much is already in the public domain. There may be some items that require written copyright permission and even fewer that charge a fee.

If you can convince the copyright holder that product placement in your publication will enhance its value, the fees are negotiable; even neglible. But liability for copyright infringement is yours and yours alone. Avoid costly mistakes. Ask permission, not forgiveness.

2 thoughts on “Copyright Permissions: 5 Myths debunked for authors

  1. Numbers 1 and 5 were the surprises! Probably because I’ve done a lot of academic publishing, where fair use really does apply, but this your post is a good warning about how the rules can change from genre to genre.

    I wonder if a quote in a university press-published book falls under the fair use exception. University press publications are both scholarly and commercial. But that’s really a question for the lawyers, and the press itself would probably have a good feel for it.

    • Even academic publishers are bound by copyright laws and Fair Use does not apply to university presses. It is hard for many to accept who have worked within the academy. Nonetheless, publishing is a business and falls outside Fair Use.

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