Monday, 17 October 2016

Be Explicit!

There’s an excellent article in the Autumn 2016 issue of The Author - the journal for members of the Society of Authors. Called Pulped, it is written by Guy Walters, a journalist and historian, who bravely recounts events that led to one of his books being pulped on the very weekend it was due to be published.

The reason for pulping? Copyright infringement.

However, this was not some underhand or blatant attempt to infringe copyright. Walters had been in contact with the copyright holder. He even provided his publishers with copies of the emails he’d sent to the copyright holder, explaining which passages he was planning to use in his book, and how it would help. (This is one of the reasons why his publisher stood by him, because he could demonstrate that he’d made contact with the copyright holder and explained what he was up to.)

You see, the problem was that even though Walters was in correspondence with the copyright holder, he hadn’t actually, explicitly, requested permission to use the copyright material.

I’m sure many of us would think that if a copyright holder was informed that someone was going to use their protected material they would state if there was a problem with this. Because Walters had explained to the copyright holder of his planned use of the material, and had not been advised that he couldn’t go ahead with this, he’d assumed permission had been granted. Not so, as he found out when the lawyers got involved.

Technically, he’d not specifically requested permission to use the material, so, technically, no permission had been granted to use it, hence the copyright infringement.

Thankfully, for Walters (and because he’d kept all of those emails), his publisher remained committed to the project. He had to rewrite his manuscript, removing all the copyrighted material and any references to it. His book was eventually published two years later.

It’s a compelling reminder that if you want to use someone else’s words in a project of your own, that you intend to publish, you must always seek permission from the copyright holder. If the creator is still alive, or if they died fewer than 70 years ago, the text is still under copyright.

Although copyright law allows for the quoting of some material under ‘fair use’ exceptions, the definitions of ‘fair use’ are not always as clear cut as they could be, which can keep lawyers arguing for some time. The safest solution is always to seek permission (in writing).

There is now a useful website that makes this much easier, if the material you want to quote from is in a book or magazine. Sometimes finding out who the copyright holder is can be challenging. Publishers and imprints gets swallowed up by large conglomerates. Finding the right contact at the permissions department can be difficult. 

Called PLS Clear ( it allows you to search for an ISBN, ISSN, or publication title. The results are returned, from which you can select the relevant organisation, and then proceed to make your request electronically. Most UK publishers are signed up to this scheme, which means the chances of finding the correct rights department to contact are that much greater. If your request is straightforward your permission could be granted within the hour.

The next time you want to quote someone’ else’s work, just stop and think about Guy Walters’ experience. And if that text you want to quote from is in a book or a magazine then check out the PLSClear website. Your permission to quote copyrighted material could be just a few clicks away.

Good luck.


  1. I've heard and seen quite a few writers say they're OK to use quotes and extracts under 'fair use' terms, but not many of them are able to explain the legal definition of fair use.