Thursday, 30 May 2013

Copyright and Permissions

By Gillian Hamer
To substantiate the importance of the following article, let’s simply quote a Guardian headline from May 2010.

‘I still have invoices. For quoting one line of “Jumping Jack Flash.” £500. For one line of “Wonderwall.” £535. For two lines (eleven words) of “I Shot the Sheriff.” £1000. All plus VAT. Book total = £4401.75.’ 

If that doesn’t make you sit up and take note, nothing will. That cost could easily wipe out a typical advance from a publisher, and most likely wipe out all future profits from a single novel by an indie author.

And that was doing it right, getting permission from the required sources and paying for the privilege. Had the author chosen to ignore, or feign ignorance, of the law those costs could have been easily ten times more and would most likely have seen him on the wrong end of a scary lawyer’s summons and an even more costly day in court.

The article in question was written by author Blake Morrison, and related to a party in his novel, South of the River, at which the DJ’s somewhat dubious choice of music – and more importantly the context of the lyrics in relation to his novel – ended up costing the author dear.

Copyright and Permissions is a minefield. This obviously covers not only song lyrics, but use of images, letters, quotations, and extracts of prose or poems (more detailed list below).

In very simple terms, permission is required to quote any part of any work that is in Copyright. In the UK (and in most parts of the world) for most works this is until 70 years after the Copyright owner’s death.

So, how can a writer get around these permissions? Answer: you can’t. In the example above - you could safely name the song and/or the artist, but once you decide to put Bob Marley’s words down on paper and you can see no way around it that won’t ruin your novel – prepare to pay out.

You may argue that Bob should be grateful for the free advertising, happy that you may through your books, encourage a whole new generation to seek out his music. Good luck selling that one. It’s very unlikely his estate or his record company would agree. At a time when illegal downloads and sites like Spotify are eating into its multi-million pound profits, the music industry needs every penny and will have no hesitation seeking out a writer who breaks strict UK copyright law – even accidentally.

However, it’s important to take a balanced perspective. Your work should remain just that. And while permissions are big business now, not only within the music industry but also the literary world, the law is in place to protect you as the owner of your copyrighted work. Many literary agents and publishers have specialists who deal with permissions for their clients, and often you will see publishers have a section of their website that deals solely with these requests. For famous, best-selling writers, this can run into millions of pounds in potential lost income if not handled correctly. For example, imagine how many times Harry Potter may get mentioned or quoted, or have trademarks abused, and imagine how much money JK Rowling could lose without a band of eagle-eyed lawyers protecting her assets.

Summary of Material Requiring Permissions

- quotations of over 300 words from a book

- quotations of over 50 words from a journal, newspaper, or magazine article

- reproduction of certain works of art

- photographs

- charts, tables, or graphs

- reproduction of web pages or screenshots

- any third-party software used in a CD, DVD, or website supporting an author’s work

- film stills and film grabs

- reproduction of advertisements

- certain trade mark usage

- certain photographs containing recognisable people

Summary of Material not requiring permission

- in ‘fair dealing’ cases (see below reviews and critiques)

- excerpts falling within the STM Guidelines for Quotation and Other

- Academic Uses of Excerpts from Journal Articles (provided that the relevant publisher is one of the signatories to the Guidelines)

- direct quotes from interviews (conducted by the author)

- facts or ideas

- public domain information

- Crown copyright material covered by a Click-Use licence or waived by OPSI (Office of Public Sector Information, formerly HMSO) – for more details see

- certain use of trademarks, logos, and company names

- mathematical and chemical equations

- substantially modified material (just credit the source)

- useful forms

Where can authors look for advice?

The first place to turn for advice prior to publication would be The Society of Authors. They have detailed guidelines on Permissions and Copyright and Moral Rights.

The use of images, quotations, extracts of prose or poems has rules concerning ‘substantial’ extracts that requires detailed study. Copyright of song lyrics gets a special mention, as the music industry has a reputation for rigorously defending its rights. And the Society makes it very clear that it is you, as the author and owner of your work, that must take responsibilities for any permissions required.

Another area that needs highlighting is the use of quotes in reviews or critiques. This is another trap you may fall into unawares. The subject is covered by what the SOA call ‘fair dealing’ – allowing the use of a single extract of up to 400 words, or a series of extracts (none of which exceeds 300 words) to a total of 800 words from a prose work, or 40 lines from a poem that does not exceed a quarter of the poem. If the law is so complicated when simply looking at reviews of a copyright work, you can probably see how stringent it is when quoting another person’s work in your own novels.

The SOA Permissions guidelines are substantive and worth a read, covering areas like: Who obtains copyright permissions? Who or what to ask? When do I need permission? How much will it cost?

They also supply a comprehensive list of agencies to contact if seeking copyright permission is difficult, and they’ve produced a Model Permission Licence Letter in this regard.

These guidelines are available free to members and for a nominal charge to non-members – please contact the SOA via their website for more information.

More sources:

Another useful source of advice and information in this regard and others is the Writers & Artists Yearbook, which can now be found online. They have a section on Rights & Legal Advice that deals with Copyright issues, as well as financial advice on granting permissions and who to contact if you do find yourself in breach of the law. The website is a useful resource for a community of writers, offering a wealth of advice on all aspects of writing and getting published, the opportunity to gain feedback on your work and access to regular writing competitions.

Another superb resource for writers can be found in The Writer’s ABC Checklist (written by Lorraine Mace and Maureen Vincent-Northam) which also has a helpful, regularly updated blog that keeps writers up-to-date with changes that may affect them. They have an in depth section on Copyright in the handbook (available as an eBook or paperback) that puts to bed myths like “passing off”, copyright in names and titles, how to handle copyright with co-authors and the use of the registered © symbol. They have written a blog detailing the tough stance taken by the music industry about use of song lyrics.

There is also a list of useful resources that offer specialist assistance for writers in a variety of areas which is well worth studying.

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