“When Can I Use Work By Another Artist?”

A thing happened yesterday.

A woman said on Twitter that she was selling a book of inspirational quotes by writers.

I was one of the writers with a quote in the book.

Alongside Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Austin Kleon, Lisa Cron, Chris Baty, and, well, presumably another 90+ authors. I don’t know as I’ve not seen the book.

I am obviously flattered that anyone things anything I say is inspirational.

I did, however, comment on Twitter that while I found it flattering, I also found it a little strange that a person was trying to make money off other people’s words. Not just, say, borrowing a quote here and there to bolster a book about writing but, instead, a book of curated quotes said by other people. Regardless of the legality, I found that a bit baffling — charging three bucks on Smashwords to sell what amounts to other people’s content.

Upon commenting (and not naming the person), said author demonstrated a somewhat… aggressive attitude, attacking me and revoking my potential exposure from the book (?) and telling me I “sicken” her (?!) and — well, on and on. I obviously touched a nerve. I’ve since heard from other authors (I’m so tired I originally typed that as “author others” which perhaps works, too) that she’s given them some problems in the past — so, hey, whatever.

Point is, it escalated quickly.

Her defense of using my quote was “fair use,” which it may be — I don’t know because again, I have not seen the book. (She’s reportedly cribbing a quote of mine from 250 Things You Should Know About Writing.) One assumes I am expected to pay for the book to be inspired by myself? Is that a good deal? It doesn’t feel like a good deal.

Let’s talk about when you can use another author’s — or artist’s — work.

Assume the answer is “not without permission,” especially when you’re profiting from the use.

Now, that’s not necessarily functionally true. “Fair use” is a real thing, but it’s very rarely as cut and dried and one would prefer. The author’s dead, so it’s fair use? The estate may yet be involved. It’s before a certain date so it’s fair use? Again, the estate may be involved or there may be other legal entanglements. It’s just a quote, so it’s okay? Maybe. Maybe not.

This is a pretty good look at fair use, from NOLO.

It asks whether or not you’re contributing new content or just repurposing old content. It notes, too, that the amount of material cribbed is less important than the quality and value of material cribbed. Lots of little vagaries and legal eddies you may get caught in, which is again why I say:

Always ask the author or artist. It’s just good to be safe.

I have people sometimes repurpose entire terribleminds posts, and I usually ask as politely as possible that they excerpt the post and link back. (To be clear, I don’t fight if they don’t back down, generally. Is that really the hill I want to defend? Probably not.)

For the record, I’m entirely supportive of folks using quotes or excerpted material in blog posts or across social media or in educational material — long as the author isn’t making money off me or my work, I’m pretty loosey-goosey with how my stuff gets out there. If you’re not sure if your use falls on the right side of this, you can always email me at terribleminds at gmail dot com and I’m happy to chat. I won’t bite. Unless cornered. Or paid handsomely.


  • I saw that book advertised yesterday and wondered about it. My first thought was “wonder if all those people gave permission” and my next thought was “why would I want that book when I can search Google for free.” It seemed sleazy and exploitative to me. My next thought was “Nah, I’ll pass.” After which I gave it no more thoughts until now. Thanks for answering my first question :-)

    • The author is now attacking me on Twitter, too, stating: “He fashions himself as a “tough guy” writer adviser. Uses F bombs all the time. He used to be pretty cool, but then he started getting famous, began unfollowing almost all his followers and rarely replies to tweets.”


      • Um, huh? I need to make sure I’m not following this person, because they’re a troll. The reason she’s attacking you is she knows deep down she’s done something wrong and feels defensive. For what it’s worth, I still think you’re cool, and I’m living proof you reply to tweets :-)

      • April 17, 2013 at 2:32 PM // Reply

        Ok, so she says you never reply to Tweets, yet feels offended because you answered her on Twitter? Uh… what? *scratches head* Well it appears you did hit a nerve.


    But I’ve read Title 17 (the US Copyright law) repeatedly and it’s worthy of note that the Fair Use Doctrine appears to be a defense against copyright infringement, not a license.

    The distinction is that you only get to actually benefit from it after you’ve been sued and your lawyer is arguing a case in front of a court. If the court agrees, then you get to keep using it. If the court disagrees… well, yeah. Liabilities and penalties add up pretty quickly.

    Some uses of work are protected – parody and satire, and critique, for example – but even those uses may require a court defense to stand up against persistent trollage.

    “Always ask the artist” is always a good idea.

  • And it shows a sense of courtesy and respect that you ask the author for permission first before going ahead with your publication. At least give each author a chance to say yay or nay rather than be surprised after the fact. Plus, if the author approves of your use of their words in your publication, they may even be willing to help you to promote to their own readers and friends.

    • This.

      Just this morning I read a post by another writer that I really liked and I had an additional point to add, so I wanted to post about it on my blog. I wrote the post, introduced the original author, blog and post, quoted, made my point and provided links to the original post and the author’s Twitter feed.

      Then I privately asked the other writer for permission.

      It wasn’t a big deal for him (as I told him, my 3’s and 4’s of readers thank him), but I made it easy for him to say ‘Yes’ and was polite. We had a pleasant exchange and I got a retweet to boot.

  • I think it’s great that you’re so open to people quoting you for non-profit purposes… some writers/artists are extremely precious about their own work, even when it’s properly credited and referenced. I think the lady you mentioned (can’t call her an ‘author’ without knowing if she’s actually written anything ‘original’ or just collected the works of actual authors) is incredibly out of line for respond to you in a hostile way. Though it is very telling that other authors have had problems with her too.

    Good luck if you have to pursue this any further!

  • I think this is kinda the same thing Des Machale did with Wit and Ready Wit. Although I never thought of it from the point of view of the people that said those things.

  • In doing research for my own work, I found this extends far beyond blog posts, books, magazines, and the like. Things that some people would consider fair use are actually a minefield of legal issues. The most dangerous example I’ve seen is song lyrics. People think that it’s fair use to just have a single line quoted of song lyrics. I’ve heard from countless hopeful writers that they’re including song lyrics in their books, one even said that the entirety of their book hinged on the use of song lyrics. Unfortunately, songs are treated very different than other written works due to their short nature.

    One of the articles I found helpful (if not a little hope-dashing): http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/01/blake-morrison-lyrics-copyright

    The short answer is, don’t quote song lyrics. Especially from popular songs.

    What really troubles me is the concept of “fair use” being tossed about by the same crowd of people who are self-publishing. It’s one thing when you have an agent, editor, publisher, and a whole slew of working on your book and making sure you’re on the legal side of things. When you just push out a book on Amazon on a whim, you don’t have a team of lawyers to back you up.

    And while your advice on asking the artist is definitely the way to go, it’s not the catch-all it might seem. I had two well-known musicians/bands give me full permission to quote their work in any way I wanted. But they’re not the sole owners of their work. They could not give me that permission in writing as a result, so I would run the risk of having the music recording industry come after me for a line or two.

    But hey, the music recording industry are friendly and forgiving fellows, right…?

  • I’d certainly like to at least be given the option of not having something I’d said quoted in a book like that. We’re not talking about an academic text here, where the quote is used to back up a point, or even a novel where a popular fiction reference is there to add flavour to a scene. In this case, the quotes are the entirety of the book’s concept and content.

    My publisher made sure that I didn’t even quote other author’s opinions of my own books on my own website without their permission, so I would extend that same courtesy to something like this, hands-down.

    • Supposedly there are 111 quotes. According to the Smashwords listing, there are less than 8000 total words, and that includes the title page and introduction. That averages out to something like 75 words per quote, including any citations, and doesn’t really leave the author (editor? compiler?) any room to expound on why the quote is inspirational.

      Without forking over the $2.99, it is impossible to see how these quotes are treated. The author only allowed a 10% sample, which reveals the title page and some of the introduction.

      I’m sorry, but even if this is legal, I don’t see how it is ethical.

  • When I find myself becoming quickly aggressive about something, I am generally wrong about what I did in the first place and somewhere, maybe deep down, I know I’m wrong. I’m guessing that’s what happened here. She went into it knowing she was wrong and already had her shields up.

  • You could probably just Google “Inspirational quotes by writers” and find all the quotes she included. That’s probably where she found them. If you wanted you could put them in a document and read them whenever you want. Why pay for the book?

  • Crediting the source does not remove the obligation to seek permission. Once you put it in tangible form, from your brain to whatever medium you choose, it is subject to copyright law and is considered intellectual property.

    As a related aside, I’ve seen a disturbing trend among self-published authors, particularly in the YA and new adult genres where countless song lyrics become part of the stories. Now, it is doubtful that most of start up, self-published authors that have spent the thousands of dollars it would take to get permission to use the lyrics. That is an issue within the self-publishing industry that should be addressed otherwise, a well-meaning author that does not know any better will find themselves subject to a lawsuit and a good chunk of not only their wallet missing but their story too. This is where big-house publishing may have a leg up. They know about intellectual property laws and copyright laws, what constitutes fair use and what resides in the public domain. Some off the cuff, writing enthusiast eager to see their name in print, may be ignorant and saying, “I didn’t know” with an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders does not constitute a viable defense.

    • P.S. If you really don’t want this quotation stealing “writer” to use your quote on, you can always have your lawyers issue a C & D letter to scare the proverbial pants off her…I probably would be tempted to do that based on principle alone.

  • I blame the internet. The age of freely-exchanged information has made people think that anything they find on Google is free to use for whatever. (I recall a story about a blogger a while back who got sued for ridiculous amounts of money for using a couple of images they found through Google Image.)

    And Chuck, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be in her book – she seems so inspirational and uplifting on Twitter! :D (She’s still advertising the book as 111 quotes, so either she didn’t remove you after all, or she found a replacement quote from Gruck Flanbig.)

    • Yes. This. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain to people that just because something is on the Internet does NOT make it public domain.

    • That was Roni Loren and she had to pay a huge amount, even after apologizing and taking the images down. We all learned from it and created WANA Commons. :-)

      LOL on Gruck Flanbig…

  • A pattern I’ve noticed on Smashwords is that the most ethically dubious books allow the smallest samples. It almost guarantees that you will never be able to sample the actual text.

  • Thank you, Chuck, for this interesting topic.

    As a new author for YA (as yet unpublished), this has brought up a question that I have about references to a movie, etc, brought up in conversation between characters, things which come up in real life conversations. Who hasn’t found themselves quoting a well-known quote from a well-known movie, such as Star Wars, or The Princess Bride? I felt it gave my characters substance, flesh. It’s not that they go around and every other word that pops out of their mouths came from another source.

    But now I wonder if I should be doing this? In the four book length manuscripts I have ‘completed,’ there might be a half dozen movie references—I’ve never really counted them but there are not many.

    Thank you for your insight.

      • Thank you for your response. I know that my question was not following the lines you intended but I thought I would ask.

        I won’t worry about it for now. I guess that’s what the legal department of the agent or publisher is there for…to answer things like this.


  • Hmm…I toyed with the idea of putting inspirational writer quotes on a calendar, after noticing several calendars by well-known illustrators who used inspirational quotes on their desk calendars. Now that I think about it, many were quotes from long-dead people, but others were recent, from living persons. How do you get around this? How does Quotes for Writers (@quotes4writers), where I have snagged some of said quotes? Is it okay if you make no money off the venture? Should you stick to quotes from the deceased?

    As for the attitude, she should have said this: “I’m sorry, I should have asked you. I would be happy to remove your quote from my book.” She should have blushed heavily and contacted everyone in her “book” – and pulled said book from the public until the brouhaha was settled.

    Song lyrics are a pain. I’ve been trying for years to give me the definitive answer on 7 words worth of lyrics on a 75 year old song I have used in a manuscript I’m working on now. I want to give credit where it is due, but I suppose if I had to pull my 7 words, I could make up something that would be similar. Not sure it would have the same impact as a popular song from the 1940s though…

  • I found a quote from one of my plays in a book by using Amazon’s Search Inside the Book. They never asked permission and this was the first I’d heard of it but it was actually a pretty cool usage so while a heads up would have been cool, I was flattered. But my quote is just a part of the much larger content… the content is not just the quote.

    That said, there’s a person of some niche fame who has one of my quotes in the rotation on her Twitter (as in, she uses some kind of auto-post thing that rotates the same things over and over). She uses my name but there’s no link back, no tagging my username, no mention of the book it’s from and her rotation is such that my quote posts several times a week. I’ve asked her a couple of times if she could at least throw my Twitter name in at the end… no reply. I ask myself, what does it really matter in the big picture but, unlike with the book, my quote is like 5th of her entire Twitter feed and I feel very weird about that. She’s not “profiting” per say except in followers and I guess I do get that mythical unicorn we all like to call “exposure.” But, still….

  • As I briefly said on Twitter, I don’t think any of the authors have a case against this woman. I own a couple of books of quotations. Amazon has an entire category for them under Education & Reference. I don’t presume to know the back end of publishing such a book – if the original speakers or their estates were ever compensated. Some of them were long dead but others included Oprah Winfrey, Lily Tomlin, and more. At a certain point, when something is considered “famous enough” by some non-definition of a standard, it’s public domain like everything on wikiquote. I seriously doubt the makers of wikiquote sought any kind of permission.

    As Ian said above, song lyrics are different beast. I was taught you can “say” them but can’t “sing” them without paying the label/owner.

    And now with the horrific news of costumed characters in Times Square facing abuse charges, NYC wants anyone in a costume to have written permission of the copyright holder. As a cosplayer who makes all the stuff I wear to Comic Con, I can tell you that’s fucking insane! I’m not going to Warner Brothers to ask if I can dress as Wonder Woman for Comic Con.

    • @Amber —

      I don’t know that anyone’s trying to “make a case” against her, though I’ve heard from legal folks here and privately that suggests what she’s done (no permission, cribbing material from other books, adding nothing of her own, making a profit) puts it in problematic territory.

      If she had done this and wasn’t charging for it, I don’t think it would have ever been anything but a thing I retweeted. But once you start making money on other people’s efforts, that’s where things start to get muddy. Those books of quotations are usually vetted by publishers. I mean, I don’t even know what’s IN this woman’s book. Because she never asked, nor sent me a preview copy, etc.etc.

      — c.

      • You raise a good point here, Chuck. If she had taken the quotes and then analysed them or talked about how she incorporated them into her own life, really ANYTHING beyond just collecting them and reprinting them, she would be on much, much surer legal footing. “Fair use” is a very amorphous and nebulous concept, and varies depending on which jury you get. However, it almost assuredly DOES NOT include taking large (i.e. multi-paragraph) swathes of someone else’s work and re-publishing them. Even if you *do* add the analysis, more than a couple of sentences and you’re starting to get into “must ask permission” territory.

        Disclaimer: IANAL, but I *do* deal a lot with IP law at work as a research engineer.

  • “Fair use” is even less of a protection than just the US interpretation. Assuming the nolo.com version is a correct statement of the US position it varies slightly from the UK IP law and the comparative European examples I learnt during my degree. As the which jurisdiction is the internet issue has not been decided yet even use that is fair in the US might create a liability in another country depending on, for example, whether being able to download a book from Smashwords is counted as the book being published in that country.

  • For what it’s worth, getting permission to quote song lyrics in a novel or story collection can be easy and free. It was for me. Or it can be difficult and expensive, as it was for a friend of mine. Depends on the artist and the artist’s management.

  • What she did was illegal:

    “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

    Straight up. In all of these instances a quote can be used for criticism, review, parody. Unless there was some sort of review or criticism of your work entailed in the book, she unethically used your words.

    SOURCE: I’m a librarian.

  • April 17, 2013 at 12:54 PM // Reply

    This kind of thing drives me absolutely nuts. I was an editor with a textbook publisher and I did a TON of work securing reprint permission rights. What she has done is not legal, nor is it okay. In order to use a quote from something, she MUST contact the publisher and purchase the rights to use those quotes. She’ll have to sign a contract and accept that the terms of the rights are (generally) either for print or electronic only, and if she wants both, she needs to pay for both (fucked up, yes, but that’s how it is right now for many companies).

  • I’m with you on the ethics / questionable legality, but I’ll stand up for the merits of a collection. (Not this collection, but the idea of a collection.) Sure, I can google ‘inspirational quotes’ and collect them all myself, but that takes time and effort. And if it’s a worthwhile collection (a dubious proposition in this instance), I would hope that the editor did extra digging to unearth some less common quotes. Curation is the future of the internet; with so much content, much of it poor quality, eventually we’re going to be paying people to send us to the worthwhile material.

  • @Jenny Hansen: Which I thought was kind of ridiculous – she was definitely in the wrong for using the images, but I don’t think the photographer even asked her to take them down before suing a nonprofit blog (and IIRC, the blogger said the amount asked for was above her means, let alone any “profit” she was making off the use). Using the images was an unintentional dick move, but suing was an intentional dick move.

    I’m familiar with WANA, but what’s their Commons?

    • WANA Commons is a group on Flickr…WANA-ites post images that others can use for their blogs, all creative commons licensed. Look for WANA Commons. There’s over 8k images on it now. (hope you don’t mind me answering Jenny!)

  • I find it interesting that her first response to you, that I noticed, was to link to an article explaining fair use in order to prove she was in the right. This makes it look as though she knew she might get this kind of response. Honestly, going over the blog post she linked to, I think she may have misunderstood the concept of fair use. The blog article she cites is talking about using copyrighted work to enhance someone’s original work–like quoting a line from a book within your own story. That’s not what she’s doing here.

    Fair use is for people using copyrighted material for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research,” (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107) . A book of quotes doesn’t apply to any of these, and the fact that she is using copyrighted material for commercial use weakens her case even more.

    I think she had good intentions, but sometimes we don’t realize how our good intentions can do more harm than good. It would be good practice to ask permission for this type of work. You may unintentionally misrepresent somebody who is working hard to build their brand or cause. Having the copyright owner look over how their work is being represented is just good manners–and you shouldn’t have to purchase a copy to find how she is benefiting from your work.

    An original author of one of those quotes may feel like this book represents something they don’t agree with, and that author may not want their name on her product. If such an author were to go after her, I don’t think she has much a case to argue “fair use.”

    But what do I know? Doesn’t sound like you were interested in suing her or stopping her from using your quote, just surprised by how you were notified of it. She sure got upset in a hurry, and in the end, just made herself look bad.

  • My computer died as I hit submit, so I apologize if you end up with two comments from me.

    I think this lady had good intentions, but she was definitely in the wrong here. She cited a blog that explains fair use, but I don’t really think she fully understood what fair use is for. The discussion in the post she cited talks about how it’s okay to use small quotes as long as you give credit. However, the article is talking about the use of copyrighted material to enhance one’s own original work. What this person has done, however, is made a book that is copyrighted material in its entirety, putting her name on it (while giving credit to others) and is using it to make a profit. Most of the work, if any of it, is not original. She’s playing a whole different game here.

    Fair use is “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research,” (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107). Technically, her work isn’t fair use since it doesn’t serve one of these purposes. The fact the copyrighted material is put together for commercial use would make it even more difficult for her to argue fair use here.

    I would just like to say that if you are going to use copyrighted material to enhance your own, give the original author a chance to look it over and give you the okay–without forcing them to buy it. Authors have to work hard to get their name out there, and while you may think you are doing them a favor by pointing readers to the author’s work, you could be doing more harm than good if your product misrepresents what that author stands for. For this reason, it would just be common courtesy to say, “Hey, is it alright that your name is on my product?” You and your product could represent something that author doesn’t stand for. Give those authors a chance to politely refuse you permission (or grant you permission). In the end, she got defensive really fast and only made herself and her product look really bad.

  • It sounds like the woman in question enjoys poking hornets nests! Once you cross that ‘making money from it’ line…there’s no good Karma on that path without permission (if the person is alive trying to make a living).

    In one of my stories I ended up quoting quite a bit of poetry (always noting the poet) but the poets have all been dead two hundred years or more. I’m assuming that puts it in the public domain (cross fingers).

    Slightly off subject, a lot of people don’t realize that if they own a painting, print or one off photograph by a living artist it doesn’t mean they own the legal right to sell copies of it (unless the painting is an antique — but even that might not hold water if the artist gave their heirs the rights to earn money from copies if their work). If you want to make money off art created by a living artist you have to pay them (or cast a spell on them) to write over to you that right…can’t remember the exact legal words. At the end of the day better safe than sorry. It sounds like that poor woman who used someone’s photograph from off the internet learned the hard way. Ouch!

    We live in a strange greedy age. I feel embarrassed for that woman misappropriating quotes. What next? Stealing bones from children’s graves to make into cute Goth inspired Momento mori’s to sell on Etsy? Some people…

  • I particularly enjoyed that the blog post she linked to — to justify her “fair use” — explicitly stated in big bold letters ASK PERMISSION FIRST!

    Besides the legal issues (which seem murky, at best), it’s just, you know, being decent people to one another.

  • There’s a fine but frustrating line between fair use and blatant plagiarism. I, for one, wouldn’t even think of approaching a work like that without first getting the express permission of each and every person I was quoting, where possible. To then react aggressively like that, well, the whole thing just seems fishy.

    Copyright law is a real thing that people are getting too accustomed to flouting. Not saying the current system is ideal, but rather that these are legal issues that it is the responsibility of the “quoter” to pursue, not the responsibility of the original artist to police.

  • A book consisting mainy of quotes from still-living authors, still-under-copyright work, or whichever of the kind is just inane and stupid – might as well publish a book with the first lines, or last lines, of their books. There’s no difference. A quote here and there can certainly be fair use, but only quotes? I don’t think so…

    I hope some of the other authors take notice and bring down a cadre of lawyers

  • You kept a much cooler head than I would have. I was impressed by how calm your tweets were and not so much at how agressive this other author’s were.

  • I realize this may have been said earlier (the comments were fast a furious for a bit, I may have missed it!) and it looks like you’re working stuff out, but as I explained this story to my husband he said simply, “You would never get away with that if it was music. If you put your favorite songs on one disc and sold it you’d get the shit sued out of you.”

    To which I replied, “RIGHT?! RIGHT?! IT’S CRAZY!” and felt the need to share it here.

    So, uhm, that’s my two cents. Hope you get yours. :)

  • You, know, Chuck, the first thing of yours I read was a blog post called “25 Bad Writer Behaviors.” I’d think that if this person drew inspiration from something you’d written, she would have read more of what you’d written. Like that particular blog entry. *raises eyebrow of suspicion*

  • I like your laid-back approach, Chuck. Too bad she flipped out and got overly defensive. Maybe she was hoping bad publicity would sell more copies of her book?

    Aaaaaannnd maybe she needs to read the actual law on fair use, not just a blog post.

    This is about more than words, its about anything creative. If she were selling a collection of favorite pictures that she loved – say, artwork or photography – she’d also get sued to pieces over copyright. An author’s words are the same thing as a painter’s brush stroke or a photographer’s film. Just because she likes them, she is not free to do what she likes with them for her own profit.

  • If I’m being reasonable and measured (which it sounds like you were) and somebody else is being aggressive and horrible (which it sounds like she was) I still sometimes have a nagging doubt about whether I handled things right and regardless, it’s a horrible thing to experience.

    So, for whatever its worth, I’d like to add my voice to the assembled supporting you and pulling a shocked face at .

  • I think it would blow your mind if you knew the extent of her narcissistic viciousness. If you have the inclination, read through all of her blog posts and see the plethora of attacks. She has vilified reputed authors, artists, editors, art directors, publishers and anyone else who has dared to question her about anything. I know most of the people she has attempted to smear. Everything she says is twisted in lies and deceit. I am one of her victims, btw. She is a jealous, pernicious person who loves nothing more than to torment those whom she perceives as successful. She strikes at a certain profile of person and apparently you fit the bill. Her “big author” remark was a big giveaway.

  • I was quoted in the book “365 Days of Dogs” without being asked. It’s still out there. What irks me isn’t so much being quoted, as having that book appear under a search for my name on Amazon, as if I were somehow associated with, or condoned the book.

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