Copyright Questions

Open Contents



In this section:

    Is my copyright protected?

    Yes. Material doesn’t have to be in print for its copyright to be protected. It doesn’t need to be officially registered. Your “original works of authorship” are copyrighted as soon as they are “fixed in a tangible form of expression.” Since 1989, copyright notices are no longer required to secure protection, so it’s not necessary to include them on your manuscript. It’s just extra work for the designer to remove them. If you are sending out extracts of your book for articles don’t stamp “copyright…” all over them; it looks amateurish. "All rights reserved" means nothing. Above all, don’t get paranoid (or don’t let people suspect that you are) about someone else pinching your idea or copying your text. You can’t stop anyone from pinching your idea, as such, it’s not copyright. And they might have had it first. You can’t prove they didn’t. Anyway, ideas are the easy bit; it’s getting it to a finished book that’s the hard part. They won’t copy your text, because then you can sue them for infringing copyright.

    Don't worry that if you send manuscript or proofs around for endorsement or marketing purposes someone is going to pinch it and use it as an ebook. No one is going to take the risk, unless you are already a million-copy bestselling author, and in a few months’ time, if they really wanted to do that, they can scan the printed book and do it. It just does not happen.

    Can I trademark my idea or title?

    No. You cannot own an idea, or a word, or a symbol. Trademark law is for clarity on who makes goods or a service, and who is selling it – a "mark" for "trade." It indicates the source of a product.

    What does copyright include?

    Copyright gives the owner (you) full and exclusive rights to control who may copy or create a derivative of a work (such as a printed book) and how that may be done (though it doesn't last forever). 80% of everything ever published is still in copyright, and 10% of that is still in print.

    Prose text, poetry, computer programs, figures/line drawings, tables, charts, maps, photographs, film stills, excerpts in musical notation, and pictures are all included in copyright material.

    Copyright does not protect facts, themes and ideas, but how these are put together and presented in an author’s work. It’s not quite as simple as this though. There are no exact rules. In prose text, the copying need not be literal to be an infringement, paraphrasing counts as well. Copying can be based on the ideas, the “quality” of what is taken, as well as the “quantity,” the number of words. But as you move from the use of identical wording towards using similar themes and configurations, infringement becomes harder to prove.

    If you are using ideas expressed by other authors, do acknowledge them. After all, you are likely to be in the same marketplace as them; they are your potential endorsees, potential readers. Other readers familiar with the subject area may feel short changed if you appear unfamiliar with the current literature or pass ideas off as your own.

    There is a distinction between "copyright" and "plagiarism." Plagiarism is more of a moral issue. You can plagiarize a work that has fallen into the public domain and lost all copyright protection, so no one can sue you. But you will damage your reputation. There are grey areas. Parody is generally not plagiarism, because in order for the parody to succeed, the reader must know that it is not written by the original author. Using archetypal characters and classical myths is generally not plagiarism, so long as the approach is original.

    Copyright infringement (the basis for a legal action) is where you copy or paraphrase too closely an idea fixed in some tangible form, which can lead to a legal claim for damages by the copyright holder. Legal damages can be extensive in the US, because they can be "punitive." In the UK, they are generally confined to loss of the likely earnings of the original copyright holder. Because books are available in both countries, you can be sued in either, however, few copies have been sold.

    We have not had an occasion where another author has extensively plagiarized a work that we have published. However, it has happened with paragraphs. It is difficult to get any remedy for this. You or we have the right to sue for damages, but it is hard to quantify that over small sections of text, the big corporate publishers do not bother to reply, using a solicitor is expensive, and the cost of that will not be recovered.

    How long does copyright last for?

    Copyright protection in most countries lasts for seventy years from the end of the calendar year in which an author dies (or, in the case of joint authorship, the end of the year of the death of the author who dies last), and covers unpublished material as well as published.

    Exceptions to this are:

    • Posthumously published works
    • Works published before 1st August 1989: 50 years from publication
    • Works unpublished where the author dies before 1st August 1989: end of 2039 (or 1989 plus 70 years)
    • Works unpublished where the author dies after 1st August 1989: author’s lifetime plus 70 years
    • Anonymous and Pseudonymous works: 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was first published unless identity of author is ascertained within that time, in which case author’s lifetime plus 50 years

    The nature of the problems around copyright and making books available is quite different from what it was a few years ago. There's a useful summary in a New York Times Magazine article.

    Since 1996, everything copyright in one signatory to the Gatt Copyright Agreement is copyright in every other country that is signatory to it. That includes all countries where we are likely to be selling books. So, for instance, even if copyright appears to have lapsed on a title published in the US back in the early 20th century, if the period of 70 years from the authors death has not passed the book is now in copyright in the US in 2010, even though it might not have been in 1995.

    For the US, it’s more complicated, with books sometimes being in copyright for 95 or 120 years after publication. If in doubt, look at the US government copyright office website; extract:

    The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.

    How much can I quote without payment?

    Both British and US law allow for free use of copyright material in certain situations. It's described broadly as "fair use." Without fair use, it would be impossible to write a negative book review, or compare one book with another. You do not need to apply for permission to use an extract if the material quoted for the purposes of “criticism and review.” UK law also provides for free use where the material is not “substantial,” where one or other of the “fair dealing” provisions apply. Similarly US law provides for free use in the case of what is called “fair use.” In these cases, permission doesn’t have to be applied for, though acknowledgement must be given, listing author, title, page reference, publisher, and date of publication. That is a legal requirement.

    It is a confusing area though, since “fair dealing” and “fair use” limits are not specified in law and not all publishers agree what they are. Interpretation can also vary from country to country. It also only applies to prose and poetry, not to charts or diagrams. If a book states something like "except for brief passages quoted for non-commercial purposes, no part may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher," it is best to ask for permission, to be on the safe side. Please note that "fair use" and "fair dealing" only apply to non-fiction for academic purposes, or those of criticism or review; fiction does not count.

    The most commonly accepted guidelines in the UK (and the US is roughly similar) are those agreed between the Society of Authors and the Publisher’s Association; this is that the following do not need application for permission:

    • A single prose extract of up to 400 words
    • A series of extracts from a single prose text up to a total of 800 words, with no single extract exceeding 300 words
    • Extracts of up to a total of 40 lines from a single poem, provided that this does not exceed a quarter of the poem, but not all poetry publishers accept this

    It is always best to be on the safe side and quote significantly less, particularly with poetry. In any case, readers are usually looking for original material rather than quoted material, and too many quotes leave a second-hand impression. We advise not to quote more than two lines of poetry (the title of the poem doesn’t count as one of these). Anything more than that, and depending on the poet and the publisher, you might get into trouble if you have not asked for permission. With prose, it is generally less of a problem. Current Society of Authors guidelines can be found here.

    IMPORTANT: With lyrics/songs, it is often a problem, and it's best to avoid them altogether. Fair use doesn't apply to song lyrics, and even using a few words could land you in trouble. Companies that administer music/song copyrights often charge $100 or $200+ for quoting a few lines, and can add a zero or two to that if you quote without permission. You can use the title of the song. A good article on song copyright here.

    If you are quoting from an older poem that is out of copyright, be careful that the version has not been "tweaked" in the edition you quote from. Unlikely, but it happens.

    Do avoid the need to ask for permission if at all possible. If you do want to quote passages that are lengthy enough to need permission, they will probably need paying for, and it is standard practice (except perhaps in the case of anthologies, where permission has to be obtained for all material used, however short the passage) for permissions to be obtained, and fees paid, by the author. We do not offer to pay for permissions where payment is wanted. If it’s £50/$100–£100/$200, it’s too much. If it’s $10/£5–$20/£10, the cost of dealing with the invoice, correspondence, drawing a check, and accounts paperwork is too high.

    If you do want to pursue permissions, a good starting point is the WATCH database of copyright contacts. We need non-exclusive permission for world rights for the use of the material in the first printing and all future editions and reprints. You may have to get separate clearance from publishers in the US and UK in the event that they are different and have contracted separately with the author/agent. Tracking down the relevant sources can be very time-consuming. Many rights departments have not cottoned on to modern printing methods yet, and will ask what the print run is going to be. We do not get into correspondence about retail price or print runs; at the time of asking, those are not known, and as far as permissions go, are meaningless questions nowadays anyway. See more in Can you explain print runs to me?

    They may want to limit permission to a certain quantity, in which case it is your responsibility to inform them when that number has been sold, and negotiate a further fee.

    Do not do this…

    • The fee is always likely to be more than the quote is worth, as they have to cover their expensive time.
    • Many rights departments still think in terms of permission for print only, so you will have to negotiate separately for ebook rights.
    • They are always likely to restrict permission to English-language only, in which case there's a danger that if we sell translation rights the foreign publisher uses the quote without permission. Which can get legal. We cannot tell overseas publishers that “it’s fine to translate/print/publish but you can't use the picture on page 345."
    • If the license is limited to a certain quantity of books printed or sold, you are probably not going to remember to get back to them to renew it. Maybe it happens in 10 years’ time. You might be dead, the original copyright holder will almost certainly have been taken over by someone else, and 10 years after, that some shark of a lawyer will be trawling through ancient files looking for someone they can sue. It happens.

    The same applies to pictures/photographs.

    When quoting passages from other works which use a different spelling, it is usual to quote exactly rather than change the spelling or the grammar.

    Avoid quoting musical compositions. There are often three copyrights involved: in the melody, the arrangement, and the words.

    You do not need someone's permission to include a link to their website on yours. You do not need permission to include a screenshot of a website in a directory, comment on that site, or parody it.

    What about copyright on pictures, photos?

    Using other peoples’ photographs and artwork in the book is more complicated. It may be the artist or photographer who holds the rights to a particular picture, or the person who commissioned the work, or the person who printed the photograph, or in the case of artwork in galleries, the person who took the photograph of the picture, or the gallery itself. Tracking the source of copyright holders here is a specialist job. Avoid this minefield. It’s really not worth getting into it, and we can’t help you.

    Pictures/photos do not need to be credited if they are "free source," unless the source says otherwise.

    For pictures, photos, any artwork you supply: as with text quotes, we need non-exclusive world publishing rights, including the right to use an image for promotion of the book. All material remains the copyright of the person who originated it. We cannot agree, for instance, to copyright for English-language edition only. The reason is that if translation rights are sold to another publisher, and that publisher asks to use any illustrated material, we supply the files as part of the agreement with that publisher. We do not have the facility to track down occasional pictures that we do not have the rights to sell, and extract those from the files.

    If you’ve taken a photograph of something yourself and want to use it, again, be careful. It is a complex area. If it’s a statue or image in a public, open space you are generally free to do so and use it. But this is not necessarily the case for instance with all temples, synagogues and churches, particularly inside. Ask to find out what the guidelines are. In most museums you can’t take pictures, partly for commercial reasons but also because the flash can be damaging.

    In general, it’s safe to take and later publish images from inside/outside churches, of artifacts within museums and of archaeological sites from Greece, Turkey and Cypress, and most museums etc. further east, on the occasions where photography is allowed. In general, you can’t publish images of artifacts from Western museums, such as those in France, Germany, the US or UK, even if you’re allowed to take pictures. They will want payment. Grey areas are Mexico, Malta and museums in Egypt. Most museums will have guidelines up on their website or at the front door.

    If there are other people in the photograph, get their permission to use it. Broadly, in public places there is no right to privacy, so you can take photos without asking. The same applies in private places where you have the permission of the landowner or the landowner has stated no restrictions on photography. Though, if someone does not wish to be photographed, or not to have their photograph published, it is best to respect their wishes.

    If the photograph is taken in a private place, or, for instance, from a street looking inside, and the subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy, you do need their permission.

    There are shades of grey here—for instance, if a subject has taken a corner seat at the back of a restaurant in the expectation of privacy he/she may claim the right to that, whereas if he/she has taken a window seat the photographer may claim that they were forfeiting their rights to privacy—such are the fine points that lawyers make a fortune on, and that we encourage you to avoid entirely. Do not go near the line.

    Permission is usually needed to adapt and modify maps, charts and tables, within reason. Copying an outline of North America from an atlas is fine, but using detailed drawings without permission is not.

    How do you acknowledge copyright (including Bibles)?

    In general, when quoting a passage you should give the author and title immediately afterwards. Copyright acknowledgements (with the publisher etc) are usually given in the prelims, after the acknowledgements, though if there are many, they can be put at the end after the main body of the text. You will need to refer to the page where the copyright quotation or illustration appears, which can only be done at the proof stage. Doing this is your responsibility; it’s hard for a proofreader to find a quotation in the proofs when they are not familiar with the title.

    Giving credit to an author for quoting his/her work does not absolve you from the need to get permission to quote it.

    When you get permission from a publisher (or whatever source), use the wording provided by the copyright holder, as under US law, copyright can be lost if it is not given correctly. Similarly, it needs to be made in the place the copyright holder requests, if they do, e.g. on the copyright page or immediately below the quote/illustration. Putting the acknowledgement in the wrong place can generate months of correspondence.

    Because of confidentiality and privacy concerns, photographs, quotes, references, or other information from which the owner can be identified requires explicit written permission from the owner.

    Summary of Bibles permission requirements:

    • AV/KJV: No formal permission required except for publication of the whole Bible.
    • RSV/NRSV: Up to 500 verses without express written permission, provided that the verses quoted neither amount to a complete book of the Bible nor account for 50% or more of the work. Standard acknowledgement (if more than one translation is used): Scripture quotations (marked RSV) are from the Revised Standard Version published by HarperCollins Publishers, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian education of the National Council Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.
    • Good News Bible/Contemporary English Version: Up to 1000 verses without express written permission, provided that the verses quoted neither amount to a complete book of the Bible nor account for 50% or more of the work. Quotations beyond these limits must be approved in writing by The Bible Society, Stonehill Green, Westlea, Swindon SN5 7DG, UK. Standard acknowledgement (if more than one translation used): Scripture quotations (marked GNB/CEV) are from the Good News Bible/Contemporary English Version published by The Bible Societies/HarperCollins Publishers, copyright©1966, 1971, 1976, 1992 American Bible Society (GNB)/1991, 1992, 1995 American Bible Society (CEV).
    • English Standard Version: Up to 1000 verses may be quoted without express written permission, provided that the verses quoted neither amount to a complete book of the Bible nor account for 50% or more of the work. Quotations beyond these limits must be approved in writing by Permissions Department, HarperCollins Publishers, 77-85 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 8JB. Standard acknowledgement (if more than one translation used): Scripture quotations (marked ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers copyright © 2001/Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
    • New International Version (Hodder & Stoughton UK, Zondervan N. America): 500 verses, neither more than 25% of work nor a complete Bible book, but imprint page states this is for non-commercial use only.
    • New Living Translation (Tyndale): 250 verses, neither more than 20% of work nor a complete Bible book.
    • New Century Version (Word): 1000 verses, neither more than 50% of work nor a complete Bible book.
    • Jerusalem Bible/New Jerusalem Bible (Darton, Longman and Todd): 500 words only.

    What if I can't find the source?

    Do not use material where you can’t find the copyright source. Copyright issues in the US particularly are immune from common sense, with no room for negotiation or flexibility, and the penalties can be draconian and out of all proportion to the offence.

    Avoid the need for permissions if at all possible. If you quote, keep it short, well within “fair use” limits. Collecting permissions can be very time-consuming, often taking a year or more. You may have found the item in a book where it has already been reproduced with permission, in which case you need to find the original rights holder. Many companies do not have rights departments, virtually all will have changed ownership once or several times if the book was published more than a few years ago, and do not have ready access to records of older titles. You may never get an answer, but a copyright holder’s silence does not imply consent. There are lawyers in the US making a fat living from hunting down breaches of copyright, particularly in the area of music. They might ignore requests for permission, wait to see if you use it on an unauthorized basis, and then sue (I have known it happen – all part of the reason why the US needs thirty times the number of lawyers per head of population than Japan). If you do need to ask for permission, because you’re on the borderline or over the acceptable number of words, keep the letter short and simple.


    Advice on interview releases plus an interview release form.

    Should I worry about libel?

    Yes. We are not experts on libel, as we have never been involved in a case. We do not read manuscripts for possible libel. Broadly speaking, it is anything that might injure the character of the person (or people, or group, or organization, or product, or even nation) referred to. There is a good summary article on it at

    It is an immensely complex area, with different rules on each side of the Atlantic. The main thing is to avoid any suggestion of it. If you are recalling incidents or quoting case studies you have been involved in, change the names and make sure the characters are not identifiable, unless you have their permission in writing to mention them and have checked that they are happy with the relevant text. Do not say anything critical about any living person (or recently deceased).

    Libel is rarely clear-cut. If it was, there would not be hundreds of lawyers making small fortunes out of it. If you ask for a legal opinion, it is likely to offer a percentage of probability as to whether you can be sued or not.

    Even a small percentage of probability can be difficult to handle, for publishers (and the shops, and distributors can be sued as well) who do not have deep pockets to afford barristers and court hearings. Unscrupulous plaintiffs and lawyers can press a case in the knowledge that the defendant is unlikely to want to go to court, so may have to settle, irrespective of the merits of the case.

    Because books are available in both the US and the UK, you can be sued in either—most likely the UK—, as UK libel laws are more stringent than in the US. London is the "libel capital" of the world. But as our books are available pretty much anywhere, you (and we) can be sued anywhere, and some countries' libel laws are tougher than those of the UK. Check out for instance Libel laws in Ireland.

    Can I get insurance?

    Taking out insurance does not help. If you haven't checked with people you're writing about that they are happy with what you say, and get that in writing, insurance will not cover you anyway.

    On liabilities: we don’t in general publish the kind of celebrity biographical (libel) or extreme sports (safety) or medical (health) books where these kind of issues come up. It costs around £2000/$4000 to have a book properly read for libel, or similar, and we don’t do it. If you are worried about anything that might cause problems, take it out. Or change names so that the characters are not recognizable.

    Authors and agents sometimes ask that the author be added as an additional name insured to the publisher’s media-perils insurance policy, but few now do that, and it does not provide much comfort anyway; the author is still responsible for a deductible retention that is usually in six figures. If you are really concerned about insurance, there are policies available at places like for around $2500 per year.

    Share this page: