Quotes and Copyright: When Is It Okay to Use a Quotation?

Quotes are great!  I love them; bet you do too, Dear Reader.  Thing is: sometimes it’s fine to use a quote – but not always.  

Even if a quotation only involves a few words, it can still be protected by copyright law.  (Sometimes by trademark law, as well.)  And if it is legally protected, then the author owns them.  The quote is his or her property.  Use it, and you are stealing that property from a federal perspective.

So, when is it okay to use a quotation?  Here are a few tips and things to consider:

Public Domain Is Your Best Resource

Any written words that have past their copyright expiration date are considered to be in the “public domain.”  The copyright has ended by the terms of the federal copyright laws.  The author no longer has property rights to the quotation.

The key here is to make sure that the quote is, indeed, free from copyright.  How to do this?

Well, you can confirm via the age of the quotation.  Anyone who has been dead for at least 100 years, you are pretty darn safe to use their stuff.  People like William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, or Plato, for instance.

But this isn’t always true.  Take versions of the Holy Bible.  Not every translation is free to use and in the public domain.  The King James Version:  yes.  The NIV: nope. 

Another example: Agatha Christie published her first novel in 1920 (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), and the Estate of Agatha Christie is vigilant about protecting her legacy – including quotes from her books and plays and letters.  Plus, her work is protected by the copyright laws of the United Kingdom as well as the United States.  

Some Quotes Are Not Copyrighted

Not every quotation gets copyright protection under federal law.  Slogans for example aren’t copyright protected.  Some short phrases, ditto. 

For more on these exceptions to the rule, read:  Copyright Protection for Short Phrases – Rich Stim,” by Mary Minow on the Stanford University Copyright and Fair Use blog. 

Fair Use of a Copyrighted Quotation

Fair use is an exception to the protection of copyright and allows use of the copyrighted words.  Under the fair use doctrine, you can use a small excerpt from a published work without the author’s permission – if you are using it for certain purposes.

These include a review of the overall work (book, novel, play, etc.); a parody of the work; or for an educational purpose. 

Fair use is tricky.  Each case must be determined on its own circumstances.  Be careful here. 

It Doesn’t Matter if the Quotation Has Been Published or Not

Copyright law does not apply only to works that have been published and shared with others.  Unpublished work is also protected by federal copyright laws.  

What If You Want to Use a Quote that is Copyright-Protected?

To use a copyrighted quote, just ask.  Maybe you will be pleasantly surprised and the owner will be touched, even complimented, that you appreciate their work.  

Will they ask for money?  Not always, but sometimes.  That’s to be negotiated between you and the author.  You might pay a nominal sum, or you might be asked to fork a pretty hefty chunk of case.  All depends.  (This is called a “licensing fee.”) 

To quote your mother (and mothers everywhere), it never hurts to ask.