Understanding the Legal Side of Poetry in Your Novels

Added: Legal Publishing
by The Urban Writers

If you want to directly quote, excerpt, or duplicate someone else’s work in your own book, you must first evaluate whether you need to get specific, legal permission from the material’s author to do so.

Citing another person’s poetry is one of the most ambiguous areas of copyright law. Even though many legal battles have been waged over this issue, there is no clear-cut answer to how to correctly cite poetry from a legal standpoint. This is largely because there is no legal regulation stating what amount of a particular poem is acceptable to use without obtaining permission from the material’s owner or author.

However, the most important ‘rule’ you’ll come across is this: When in doubt, always seek permission.

How Does Copyright Work?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property protection for creative and original work, and it kicks in the minute the work is turned into a “tangible form of expression”, such as writing.

A text  is considered intellectual property protected by copyright as long as it can be seen in a fixed form, whether a song, sketch, or story. A copyright infringement occurs when work is copied without authorization.

When work is produced, an author is immediately granted a copyright. Anything published after January 1, 1978 has a copyright that lasts for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years after their death. The copyright term duration for works written before that period varies.

Copyright Permissions for Self Publishing

So, when do you need to ask for permission to include poetry in your self-published book? The response is that if quoting without permission infringes on a third party’s copyright, you must get permission.

Even if you intend to utilise just one or two lines of a poem, you must cite the source material. However, simply recognizing the source of copyrighted work is not a replacement for actually obtaining permission from the copyright owner.

Some authors aim to quote solely from sources within the fair use category since quoting other sources is more complicated.

Guidelines For Using Poetry Books Without Permission

If you’re creating a book and want to include a quotation for criticism or parody, you’re generally acceptable to do so, as long as you’re just excerpting a brief phrase and not a whole poem. As always though, remember to give credit where it is due.

Another exemption is if the content is in the public domain, such as concepts, book titles, slogans, and names which are not copyrighted. Learn how to tell whether a work is in the public domain here.

If the work is Creative Commons licensed, you may not require permission to quote from it. Creative Commons licences enable authors to keep their copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and utilise their work in specific limited ways, at least for non-commercial purposes.

Before utilising copyrighted content, it’s best to acquire permission from the copyright owner. If obtaining consent is impossible, you should avoid using copyrighted material unless you are convinced that the theory of fair use will apply to the circumstance.

Finally, don’t assume you’ll be able to get permission to quote after your book has been published. You may be forced to delete any copies, as well as incur legal expenses and copyright damages.

copyright poetry

Obtaining Permission to Include Copyrighted Poems in Your Book

The fundamental methods for requesting authorization are outlined in this section.

In general, the permissions method follows a straightforward five-step process, as follows:

Step 1: Determine whether or not the authorization is required.

The answer to two questions will help you decide whether or not to ask for permission:

  1. Is the poem legally protected?
  2. Is it possible that your usage of the content is illegal?

Unfortunately, giving a firm ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response to these questions is not always feasible. You may need to weigh the risks of operating without authorization on occasion. If the creative work you intend to exploit was initially published after 1923, you should always assume it is protected under US copyright law.

Step 2: Determine who the owner is.

To seek permission, you must first identify the owner of the poem you want to use. This might be straightforward at times and if you look at the copyright notice on the work, you may find the rights owner there. For example, if the notification says “Copyright 1998, Philips Publishing”, you’d go to Philips Publishing first.

Step 3: Determine which rights are required.

Identifying the rights you need is the next stage in obtaining approval. Each copyright owner has a set of rights over the work, such as reproducing, distributing, and changing it. Since copyrighted works are connected with many rights, you must indicate which ones you need.

Step 4: Contact the author and determine payments.

When it comes to obtaining authorization, the most important question is whether you will have to pay for it. If the quantity you desire to use is tiny, or if the owner views your work as an educational or charity project and wishes to freely contribute, they may not request any payment. In certain circumstances, a writer seeking exposure may agree to defer payment until the work becomes lucrative, or payment may be contingent on other criteria.

Step 5: Write a contract.

It is virtually always a mistake to rely on a spoken agreement. You and the rights owner may misread or recall your agreement’s terms differently. You’ll have a hard time demonstrating the parameters of your unwritten agreement if you have to go to court to enforce it. Do not depend on oral permission agreements–instead, draft a written arrangement.

Can’t I just quote the author?

It is permitted to include an extract from another author’s work in your own writing, but it’s not always acceptable to do so without permission. It is therefore critical to understand when you need permission and when you don’t if you don’t want to be sued for copyright infringement. 

Every publisher establishes their own “fair usage” versus ‘permissions’ level. Permission is required from some publishers if you use 25 words or more from anyone else’s work throughout your own work. This implies you’ll need formal authorization if you cite 16 words in one place and ten words in another. Other publishers have greater limits, allowing up to 300 words from a single source.

If you want to publish with a big publisher, they may assist you in obtaining permission to utilise copyrighted content. They may also already be aware that some copyright holders do not allow the usage of their copyrighted works. On the other hand, the publisher may request that you alter the material you’re citing so that they don’t have to deal with permissions at all.

Take extreme caution. Litigation over intellectual property is a growing trend.

This doesn’t mean you can’t cite or utilise anything, it just means you have to get permission beforehand. Be ready to pay a fee if you want to use the content, determined by the source material and the scope of your application.

If you’re a self-published author, you must exercise extraordinary caution. You don’t want a large publisher to send you a stop and desist letter because you crossed the line.

Avoiding Legal Battles Through Fair Use

Assume that copyright law covers anything a ‘creator’ produces (except for the public domain). The written word, music, cartoons, graphics, video, charts, schematics, and images in any form are all examples of this. 

If the use of copyrighted content goes beyond the fair use criteria, permission from the copyright owner is required.

For the following, written authorization is required:

  • More than 300 words from a single literary work in book form are not considered fair use; less than 300 words are deemed fair use. This is a subjective threshold that the court has not fully articulated. Find out what your publisher’s threshold is by contacting them.
  • More than 200 words from an article or other short piece (the same caveats as above apply).
  • If the quotation is for more than half of the book (even less than 200 words).
  • When three lines of poetry are required. When it comes to song lyrics (also found in novels), be extra cautious. The rights do not necessarily belong to the singer. They may belong to the song’s author or to a major corporation. For a better understanding, see this article.
  • In reality, if you’re only citing a few lines from a full-length book, you’re probably inside fair use laws and don’t require permission. Every situation is unique, however. A lot relies on your risk tolerance as well. You should either get permission or refrain from using the copyrighted content in your own work to avoid any danger.

Any content in the public domain does not need permission; nonetheless, the author, title, and publisher should be acknowledged.

Avoid Litigation at All Costs

Do not risk using a poem without the publisher’s consent under the guise of fair use. Any legal action is a lost prospect. The client with the biggest bank account generally wins in a courtroom battle.

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