“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.

79 comments

  • 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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