If you seek traditional publication for your book manuscript, then it is incumbent upon you to obtain copyright permissions for any text or images which are not original. The book will not go to print until every written permission has been secured. Because publishing is a for-profit venture, an author cannot include the copyrighted work of others without permission and it is not covered under the “Fair Use” provisions given to non-profits under the U.S. Copyright Law.

Using a two or three sentence quote and providing proper attribution to the published source does not require copyright permission. If, however, you use two or three lines from a poem then you must get written authorization to include the words. More than a paragraph or two from a scholarly text, or an instrument or diagram or table or whatever it is you want to include, be sure you check copyright.

To find out who the copyright holder of a piece of textual intellectual property, look to the original source of publication. Find the publisher and go their website and search for their site for Copyright Permissions. For example, if the quote you want to use comes from a book published by Penguin Random House, you would enter the search terms “copyright permissions Penguin Random House” to find the link to permissions.penguinrandomhouse.com. Most major publishers have online request forms.

If there is no online request form, ask your publisher if they have a form letter to submit to gain copyright permissions. If they do not, then you will need to write a letter under your own name asking for permission, and explain what the materials is you wish to quote (from what publication), where you plan to include the material in your own work and why, the title of your book, the publisher’s name and size of initial print run, your contact information, a request for written authorization, and whether a fee will be charged.

If you include song lyrics in your manuscript, even one line, you will need to check to see who owns copyright and obtain permission prior to publication. Some copyright holders grant permission without a fee, and others require payment which varies depending on the size of the print run of your book. To look for the copyright holder of a song’s lyrics, I recommend you use ASCAP Clearance Express, a searchable database of licensed musical works.

Every image you intend to include will need to be one you took or paid a photographer to take. And whatever is in the photographic image is protected. If you take a picture of the Mona Lisa, you do not have permission to reproduce your photograph of the original painting in your book. Likewise, if you take a photograph of people playing in a water fountain in a public place, you must secure the written release granting you permission to include each person’s image in your book.

Images you use in your blogs, newsletters, and marketing materials must also be cleared for copyright. A great place to search for images in the public domain is Creative Commons, a non-profit offering an alternative to full copyright.

Several years ago a potential client came to me and she had self-published a book which included copyrighted images of Wendy’s Dave Thomas and former President George W. Bush. From neither Thomas nor Bush had she obtained written permission or paid a fee. GW and Dave Thomas either do not know about this book, or they can’t be bothered to pursue copyright infringement violation on a book which failed to sell.

You can avoid paying any copyright fees or obtaining written permissions if you can document the material you plan to include in your work is in the public domain. Rule of thumb, any work published after 1900 needs to be researched for who owns copyright. And even some works written before then, for example, the works of Emily Dickinson remain copyrighted by her estate.

But every publisher understands the need of a writer to quote a long passage from a seminal scholar, excerpt a stanza of a poem, mention the lyric of a song playing, or include an image. It’s okay to include a few things that are not your original work, but keep in mind you are responsible for obtaining copyright permissions and paying any fees.

Ninety percent of your manuscript needs to be original content in order for it to meet the standards of copyright for publishing. When your book is published then others who want to include an excerpt (longer than a quote) will need written copyright permission from your publisher. You won’t have to do a thing as your publisher handles these requests internally on your behalf.

What questions do you have about your manuscript and copyright permissions?


3 thoughts on “What about Copyright Permissions?

  1. One of the nice things about my genre — historical true crime from the 19th-century — is that almost everything is in the public domain. Some archives and libraries charge service fees for images of their materials, but I’m happy to pay that. But where the texts are concerned, it’s nice not to have to worry too much about copyright permissions.

  2. I became nervous when I read 90% of my manuscript needs to be original. I’m writing a simpler version of a recent historical event. My information came from reading other sources on the event. If I reference a fact found in a book I read, then I need to contact the publishing company for permission to use that information or fact, correct? Then I need to pay that publisher? (This may be redundant, but it’ll clarify it in my mind.)

    • If you are quoting long passages from someone else’s work, yes, you would need copyright permission. More likely, Brenda, you need to provide a citation or reference to works whose ideas or words you reference or draw from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Other Publications by author-clients of Swenson Book Development LLC

Chelsea Hanson
Mango, May 19, 2020

Cathryn J. Prince
Chicago Review Press, May 7, 2019

Amy Pershing / Chevese Turner
Routledge, August 10, 2018

Diane Tober
Rutgers University Press, November 30, 2018

Larry Scheckel
Tumblehome Learning, May 1, 2019