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Using Copyrighted Material in Your Writing: Rules, Permissions, and Creative Workarounds

You've been there before. You’re writing a crucial scene in your novel. Your protagonist is at a turning point, and you know the perfect song lyric that captures the emotion you want to convey. It’s just a few lines from a popular song, but it resonates so deeply with the moment you’re crafting that you can’t imagine the scene without it.

However, you’re unsure how to include this lyric in your book legally. You’ve heard about copyright issues but don’t know the specifics. How do you proceed so you can tell the story you want to share with readers without being afraid of getting sued?

This is a big topic, and every publication situation, audience, and genre can contain different nuances for navigating the ethics of interacting with the words of others. However, understanding the rules, seeking proper permissions, and finding creative workarounds can make the process manageable.

By the end of this post, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to use copyrighted material responsibly and confidently in your writing, as well as consider whether or not you need it to begin with.

Understanding the Rules for Using Copyrighted Material

Copyright law protects original works of authorship, such as literary works, music, art, and more, giving creators exclusive rights to their work. Here’s what you need to know about the rules governing the use of copyrighted material in your writing:

Fair Use

The fair use doctrine allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for specific purposes such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. However, determining fair use is not straightforward and is judged case-by-case. Courts consider four factors:

  • Purpose and Character of Use: Is your use transformative (adding new expression or meaning) or simply a copy? Non-commercial, educational, and transformative uses are more likely to be considered fair use. For instance, using a song lyric in a critical analysis or parody may qualify, but using it in a novel or commercial work likely will not.

  • Nature of the Copyrighted Work: Using factual works is more likely to be considered fair use than using highly creative works like novels, music, or films. Creative works receive more robust protection because they represent significant personal expression.

  • Amount and Substantiality: Using smaller portions of a work is more likely to be fair use, but even a small amount can be problematic if it’s the “heart” of the work. Quoting a few lines from a song might seem minor, but if those lines are the most memorable part, their use might not be considered fair use.

  • Effect on Market Value: If your use could replace the original work and harm its market, it’s less likely to be fair use. For example, if readers might buy your book instead of the original song because you included the lyrics, this could negatively affect the original work’s market.

Public Domain

Works published before 1924 are generally in the public domain and free to use. The public domain includes works whose copyrights have expired, forfeited, or were never claimed. These works can be used without permission, but always verify the status of the work before using it. Some newer editions of old works may still be under copyright, so careful research is essential.

Short Excerpts

While using brief excerpts might seem safe, it is not always guaranteed to be fair use. The context, amount, and significance of the excerpt all matter. Even a small excerpt could violate copyright if it includes the most distinctive or memorable part of the work.


Always properly credit the original author when using their work, even with permission. Attribution is ethical and respects the original creator, but it doesn’t replace the need for legal permission.

What About Epigraphs?

Epigraphs, those short quotations at the beginning of a book or a chapter, are often used to set the tone or theme of the work. However, the rules for using epigraphs are no different from those governing any other use of copyrighted material. Here are the key considerations:

Fair Use and Epigraphs

Fair use can apply to epigraphs, but the same four factors (purpose and character of use, nature of the work, amount and substantiality, and effect on market value) must be considered. Since epigraphs are often short and used to enhance the literary work, they might seem like a fair use. However, the commercial nature of most published books usually weighs against fair use.

Seeking Permission for Epigraphs

Because the fair use argument for epigraphs can be weak, it’s generally a good idea to seek permission:

  1. Identify the Copyright Holder: Determine who owns the rights to the quotation. For literary works, this is usually the author or publisher.

  2. Request Permission: Contact the copyright holder with a formal request. Explain the context in which the epigraph will be used and its importance to your work.

  3. Negotiate Terms: Be prepared to negotiate the terms of use. This might involve a fee or specific conditions for use.

  4. Obtain Written Permission: Ensure you receive explicit, written permission to use the material. This should outline the scope of your usage rights and any limitations.

Alternatives to Copyrighted Epigraphs

If seeking permission is not feasible, consider these alternatives:

  • Public Domain Works: Use quotations from works in the public domain.

  • Original Content: Write an original epigraph or find a quotation from your previous works.

  • Creative Commons: Use quotations available under a Creative Commons license, ensuring you adhere to the license terms.

Seeking Permission to Use Copyrighted Material

If you determine that using copyrighted material is crucial for your work, seeking permission is the next step. Here’s a rundown of the steps:

Identify the Copyright Holder

The first step is identifying who owns the rights to the material you wish to use. This could be the author or publisher, or a licensing agency. For songs, this might involve contacting the music publisher or the performing rights organization (like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC). Identifying the correct party can sometimes be challenging, as rights can be divided among several stakeholders.

Contact the Copyright Holder

Once you’ve identified the copyright holder, the next step is to write a formal request. This request should explain how you intend to use the material, the context in which it will appear, and the audience for your work. Be specific about what you’re asking to use and how it contributes to your project. For instance, if you’re quoting a song lyric in a novel, explain how it enhances the scene or character development.

Negotiate Terms

Be prepared to discuss the terms of use, which may include a fee or specific conditions under which the material can be used. The copyright holder might impose restrictions on how much of the material you can use or require that you include specific acknowledgments. Negotiation might also involve legal or financial considerations, such as royalty payments.

Get Written Permission

Ensure you receive explicit, written permission to use the material. This permission should detail the scope of your usage rights and any limitations. Keep this documentation in your records for future reference. Written permission protects you legally and clarifies what you are allowed to do.

But Do You REALLY Need to Use It?

Sometimes, it’s easy for writers to feel that a specific quote or song lyric is essential to their stories. No matter how strongly someone may feel about this, though, going through the massive work often involved in obtaining permission for use isn’t practical. Can the same impact be achieved through your own words? Here are some tips to help you balance accuracy and creativity:

Assess the Importance

Evaluate how crucial the specific material is to your story. If it’s central to the narrative or a character’s development, seeking permission might be necessary. Otherwise, explore other ways to convey the same message. Ask yourself if the essence of what you want to communicate can be expressed through other means.

Use Sensory Descriptions

Engage your readers’ senses to create an immersive experience. Describe the sounds, smells, and sights that evoke the same emotions as the copyrighted material. For example, instead of quoting a song to set the mood, describe the rhythm, melody, and instruments so readers can almost hear it.

Character Reactions

Show how your characters react to the situation or emotion you’re trying to convey. Their thoughts, feelings, and actions can often communicate more than a direct quote ever could. This technique not only avoids copyright issues but also deepens character development and reader engagement.

Dialogue and Internal Monologue

Use your characters’ dialogue and internal monologue to express themes and emotions. This approach allows for more profound character development and can be more impactful than external references. Instead of relying on a song lyric to convey sadness, let your character express their sorrow through their own words and reflections as they listen to the piece of music.

Using copyrighted material in your writing can enrich your story, but it’s essential to navigate copyright laws carefully. Whether you seek permission or find creative alternatives, understanding the rules and respecting intellectual property rights is crucial. By doing so, you can create compelling narratives that are both legally sound and uniquely yours.

Need More Help? Book a Virtual Meetup.

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On this complimentary 30-minute Zoom, I’ll answer your questions about writing, help you brainstorm strategies, and outline some valuable resources so you can effectively pursue the creative work you’re exploring.

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