Sean's Technology and Writing Blog

A question about copyright permissions

10 June 2010


Michael MacMahon, author of a guide to personal debt called 'Back To The Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way', emailed me with a question about copyright.

He says: "The last job [in writing my book] is inserting external resources, especially case studies. Most of the latter I have clipped from newspapers (or the online world) over the last couple of years. I have about 25 of them and the majority are short(maybe 150-200 words on average). For these short ones I really don't want to get into writing to loads of different newspapers / websites and waiting for permissions. (plus in some cases I don't even have a record of who published the story originally)."

He asks: "In these circs do you think I might be vulnerable to legal challenge if I insert these shorter case studies in full and without permission?"

Absolutely. That's a clear copyright infringement. Even if you can get away with it, authors should ask whether they really want to be getting away with copyright infringement at all, given their income depends on copyright.

Permissions are a massive hassle, but they're unavoidable. Getting someone to sign a permissions form is a small price to pay for all the work they've done on your behalf (finding interviewees, interviewing them, writing up the case studies, etc).

Book contracts will often make the author responsible for ensuring all the content in the book is copyright-cleared, although I was fortunate to have fantastic support from my publisher for my social networking book. The terms of the contract usually make the author financially liable for any infringement suit that follows, so it's important to get this right.

A few things to look out for:
  • Make sure you're getting permission from the copyright holder. That's not necessarily the publication, and is almost never the interviewee.
  • Take care with layered permissions. For example, if you want to quote from a story in The Times which includes research from Gartner, there might be two copyright interests in that text. If you want to use a photo of a Coke can, you might need permission from the fizzy drinks manufacturer for its branding, and from the photographer for the shot.
  • It often takes companies a long time to respond to permissions requests, so don't leave them to the end. Get started on them as soon as you know what you'll need.
  • Be organised. If you've got a lot of permissions in your project, then use Excel or something similar to track the status of each one. Make sure you find out what credit the copyright owner requires.
  • Even short phrases can be protected by copyright if they are distinctive. Take particular care with song lyrics and poetry.
Michael's question throws up two other interesting points. Firstly, the interviewee might also have rights to privacy in this particular case, because of the sensitive nature of the subject, so it might be good to get it cleared with them too or at least to check the legal position on this properly. Secondly, there's the issue of trust when using content from other publications. Can you be certain it's accurate?

In this case, the best approach is probably to use fictional case studies, which Michael suggested might be a solution in his email.

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