If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you’re probably quoting other people’s work in your material. Or you’ve used other people’s work as a reference. In many cases, you’re probably interviewing people. Maybe on podcasts or over the phone to create content from that. So, what is considered fair use of copyrighted material, and what requires permission? And what is just outright not okay?
Criticism, New Reporting, Teaching, and Research
Fair use is covered under US copyright law. It says that brief excerpts of copyright material may, under certain circumstances, be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, new reporting, teaching, and research. In those cases, you do not need to secure permission from the creator or copyright holder.
Fair use protects negative and positive comments and discussion. As an author, we will often refer to other books or works by others because something they wrote or created inspired us, and we want to refer to it or build upon it. That is fair use. But, keep in mind the word brief.
There’s no word limit. It comes down to the amount of material used must be reasonable given that purpose. In other words, it’s a judgment call.
US copyright law does not require attribution, but how would you feel if someone quoted your words or references your work, but didn’t give you credit? So give your fellow authors a shout out!
Fair Use of Copyright Material to Support Your Point
What about to support your point, which is how a lot of us authors will use copyrighted material? Fair use applies when copyrighted material is being used to illustrate, support, or prove an argument or point. But again, there are some limitations as to what this can cover.
You can’t use someone else’s work for decorative purposes. As it pertains to the body of your book work, you’ll need permission to use copyright material for anything but to support your argument, period. It can entertain while supporting your argument, but it’s not just to be for entertainment. It’s also subject to that reasonable amount of reproduction test.
What about charts and graphs?
One fun fact covered in the Fair Use Guide by the Author’s Alliance is about charts and graphs.
Charts, graphs, and tables may be protected by copyright, but the underlying facts are not copyrightable. My interpretation (I’m not a lawyer) is that you can’t copy someone else’s chart or graph and reprint it without permission. But, you can create your own with the facts given.
Creative choices in the way those facts are presented in a chart or graph might be original enough to warrant copyright protection of your own.
It’s important to note, copyright does not protect ideas, processes, facts, systems, principles, or discoveries. Copyright protects only the expression contained in work.
So I think the only question that remains here is what do you do if you want to use someone else’s work and it doesn’t fall under fair use? I think the answer is one of three choices:
- You can ask them for permission,
- Look for other works that can be used under certain licenses of use,
- Or find material that’s no longer covered by copyright or the copyright expired.
Or, something I often encourage Book Launchers clients to do is to just make up something awesome of your own. Why quote someone else’s research or brilliant ideas, when you can quote your work?