In the recent movie Seven, Brad Pitt tracked down a killer who modeled his crimes after the seven deadly sins. If the killer had taken a more professional view of sin, he might have plotted quite differently. For a doctor, I suppose, the great sin is leaving a sponge in the patient. For an accountant, it’s got to be moving money from your clients’ ledgers to your own. And for a writer, of course, the deadliest sin is plagiarism.
Every writer has heard stories of careers ruined by a single, inexplicable slip of passing someone else’s work off as his or her own. Yet every writer also knows the importance of thorough research, including hitting the books with secondary sources–in short, using other writers’ work. So where’s the line between deadly sin and dogged reporting? And how do you keep from crossing it without losing your own readers in an ocean of attribution (“according to a story by Jane Schmoe on page 4, column 3, in the Jan. 20, 1993, New York Times, the President of the United States is Bill Clinton”)–or, heaven forbid, resorting to footnotes?
You’ll find gray areas throughout this topic, to be sure, but you can pick your way through most such dilemmas if you’re prepared with, first, a basic understanding of copyrights and, second, some general principles of attribution.
Author, May 1?
A grasp of copyrights comes first because these rules govern what and how much you can safely copy into your own work–regardless of how you attribute the source. It may not be plagiarism to include a huge hunk of another author’s writing in one of your articles, dutifully giving credit where credit is due, but if you failed to obtain permission to reprint that text the result is equally sinful in the eyes of the courts.
Now, I don’t pretend to be a copyright expert–nor do you need to become one in order to author articles that cite secondary sources. But consider this my disclaimer that the advice herein represents merely practical, hands-on guidelines for general copyright issues from a working writer’s perspective. And please don’t sue me if I steer you wrong!
As a working writer with a stack of articles and three books out there, I occasionally get requests to reprint my work. When the request comes from a writing teacher wanting to photocopy one of my Nonfiction columns for her class, I always say yes. (Because it’s only a few copies, I’m not even certain such use requires my permission–so much for my copyright expertise–but some copy-store franchises are particularly vigilant about this.) If it’s a commercial publication wanting to rerun something I’ve written, I’ll usually ask for a fee.
Those are the easy cases. And the extremes of copyright are similarly clear: Copying an entire work requires the writer’s permission (unless–and this shows how nothing’s truly easy in this arena–the writer has been dead long enough for the copyright to expire). The opposite extreme is equally easy to accept, if harder to define: You need not obtain the author’s permission to quote just a few words from a work. This falls loosely under the fair use provisions of copyright protection.
Fair or Foul?
But what’s brief enough to constitute “fair use”? Whole court cases have been wrangled over this issue, so please go back and reread my “I’m no lawyer” disclaimer before proceeding. These are my general rules of thumb in deciding whether a quotation is fair:
* For most quotations from other writers’ works, a selection of about 25 words or fewer seems safe to use without obtaining permission. It’s hard to see how borrowing such a small portion of a book or article damages the author. If you need to cite more than a few sentences to make your point, try paraphrasing and summarizing in your own words those parts that don’t require the author’s exact phrasing to carry their original weight or wit. (Paraphrased humor, for example, tends to lose its punch in translation; mostly factual material can be recast more readily. Fair use or not, though, don’t forget the attribution (which I’ll discuss below).
* If you are writing about what you are quoting–for example, reviewing a book–longer and more numerous quotations from the original are generally acceptable. This is the “spirit of review” in copyright: It’s fair to quote from a work you are reviewing.
* Be careful of quoting too much from such brief works as popular songs. Reprinting 25 words from a book of 100,000 words barely dents the original, but reproducing one verse from a song that boasts only three plus a chorus means you’re parroting perhaps a fourth of the whole. Because of that threat, and the dollars at stake in the pop-music business, music publishers take copyright wrongs much more seriously.
* If in doubt, make the extra effort to obtain written permission from the author or other holder of copyright. When citing a magazine article where you don’t know how to contact the writer, start by writing to the magazine. If obtaining permission becomes too difficult, time consuming or costly, rewrite and Vigorously paraphrase. For my book How to Write Fast (While Writing Well), one magazine demanded several hundred dollars in exchange for its permission to reprint about 50 words that I wanted to quote as an example of effective writing; I opted instead to rewrite the whole section, boiling down the quotation in question to a couple of words.
He Said, She Said
Once you’ve battled through the bramble of copyrights and wrongs, you still have to make some decisions about attribution. As with how much to quote, there’s a happy medium to be found in how much to attribute and how thoroughly.
If You’ve obtained written permission to quote something, the copyright holder will probably request specific verbiage as part of granting permission. This notice need not go in the body of your book or article, however: For books, it generally goes in an acknowledgments page at the front; for articles, it usually takes the form of fine print at the end.
Again, that’s the easy part. It’s the gray areas that’ll get you.
We’ll have to rely on more generalizations here, since (disclaimer ahead! every instance is different. As one general rule, then, whenever you are quoting another writer’s actual words–as signaled by surrounding them in quotation marks–attribute them to the writer by name, just as you would with a spoken quotation.
This isn’t as obvious as it might seem. Recently a columnist I know decided to opine about the movie version Of The Scarlet Letter, in which the filmmakers substituted a happy ending for Hawthorne’s original. The columnist quoted what the movie’s director had told “a reporter” about the happy-facing of Hawthorne. Unfortunately, that anonymous “reporter” happened to be the movie critic at the columnist’s own publication–and the critic was understandably miffed about being cited at length without credit by name.