Giving credit where credit is due

I’m preparing a large work which will quote from many sources — from books and various things found online. Some quotations are just a sentence or two, while others go on for a bit. This is new territory for me. I’d appreciate some guidance on protocol.

I’m guessing brief quotations are acceptable without seeking permission. What word count is the acceptable limit on “brief”? What does a “permission to quote” copywrited material request look like? Are there pitfalls in this area to look for?

I will, of course, include full reference to the source, including page number.

Much appreciated.

Are you going through a traditional publisher? They’ll have their own requirements. Some publishers require written permissions for absolutely everything, fair use or not. Each publisher will have its own form it prefers using.

Fair use is tricky territory, and you’d find a recent copy of The Chicago Manual of Style a useful, even essential navigator through the minefield.

Basically, the interpretation of fair use hinges on the percentage of the original you’re quoting. Quoting anything, no matter how short, from a poem or a song almost always means you’ll need to secure permission from the copyright holder. Quoting a few lines from a short story, or a paragraph or two from a book-length work, is usually seen as fair use.

Works prior to roughly 1926 tend to be in the public domain and can be quoted with impunity. But “tend to be” is the operative phrase here; some copyrights are renewed by family members, others (Mickey Mouse) through dubious legal maneuvers.

A permission request could be as simple as a few lines quoting what you want to quote, addressed to the Permissions Editor at the house holding the copyright (or the author if it’s out of print), with a clear statement about how you intend to use it, and in what context, and with what publisher. Often, especially with Big Six publishers, money must change hands before permission is granted.

No, I’m not going through a traditional publisher. This is what should have been included in the first post. The “publisher” will be a new online website. And further, there will be no charge for access to any of the material. Nor will there be advertising on the site.

What changes (if anything) when money is taken off the table? And conventional publishing.

This project is about the love of the material. Nor is it about building personal status or any future considerations. This is not to be a collection of quotations. The majority of the text will be original, not published anywhere before. Quotations will be used as samples of support for the premises of the site’s main text. I well recognize the propensity of lawyers. In doing this I am seeking to do the honourable thing, asking for permission politely, then accepting the copyright owner’s decision, whichever way it goes.

It would be helpful to see sample text of these sorts of letters.

With kind regards,

Charge for access, or the presence or absence of advertising, or the fact that it’s on the Internet and not between jacketed hardcovers, or that money has or has not changed hands, doesn’t affect copyright law in the least.

Brief quotations from larger works–a paragraph from a novel or a history of the British sailing navy–almost certainly won’t need permissions for reuse along the lines you’re outlining. A poem or a song most certainly will.

You can find thousands of samples of permissions letters by Googling “sample publishing permissions letter.” Each college press has its own version, and most look very much alike; some of the larger publishers also post these online, and all show up on the Google hits.

But, again, for what you’re doing, you’ll be money ahead to invest in a recent issue of Chicago. It has been the Bible for publishers for many years in the U.S. for a good reason, and it will keep you out of dangerous waters (and also remind you how to format a quotation properly). There’s an online version, too:

Very clear and sensible. Much appreciated.