Navigating the Rights and Permissions Thicket: A Few Hints
Some years ago, an artist and friend whose passion for painting about equals her gardening acumen, offered me an opportunity to acquire a book that beautifully melded her two passions. In Garden Dreams, Ferris Cook offers an anthology of writers’ musings about gardens of their imaginations. Each piece is accompanied by her gorgeous paintings inspired by exquisite garden book cover designs from days gone by.
By contract, publishers require authors to acquire (and pay for) permission to reprint anything—words or pictures—that is under copyright. Ferris and I determined which essays needed to be cleared, and she set about the arduous task of contacting the appropriate rights holders. During a final review, just before she began to write the checks, one particular excerpt jumped out as having been published just long enough before as now to have entered the “public domain,” but the publisher was still charging $150 to reprint it!
Ferris contacted the rights and permissions division of the publisher—an estimable firm that had been publishing books in England since the time of George III and in the U.S. since the beginning of the 19th century—to ask why. “Because you asked,” she was told.
Caveat: When working out the rights and permissions issues for your publication, do your homework, and take nothing for granted.
The path to clearing permission for reprinting anything is likely to be thorny, and different rules apply to different kinds or material. Acquiring the rights to reproduce an image has its own set of determinations and regulations, which I won’t address here. But let’s take a brief tour of four of the most important issues you will face in order to quote text passages in a new work.
- Extent of quoted material: How long is the passage you wish to quote? Under 600 words, you’re golden. . . probably. If those 573 words amount to a substantial portion of the total word count in your publication, you will have to obtain permission to reprint them. If it’s poetry, permission is apt to be required for as little as one line.
- Nature of quoted material: Many publishers include language in their copyright notices requiring permissions clearance unless the quoted material is used in a review of their book. (They won’t place potential obstacles in the way of book sales, after all.) But pretty much any other kind of use will be governed by copyright law.
- Nature of publication in which quoted material appears: This, too, will have an effect, not so much on permission being granted as on the cost of obtaining it. A scholarly monograph with an initial printing of 2,700 copies isn’t likely to incur as high a fee as a highly promoted trade title hitting the market with a 270,000-copy print run.
- Date when excerpt was published: Notice that I list this last, when I bet you expected it to come first. While it’s true that the publication date of the quoted material can fairly quickly rule out an older book, it may have no bearing on, say, that same title's 3rd edition, which may well be under copyright. If your quote is from the original edition, well and good; if not, be prepared to start writing your letter of request to the rights holder.
The procedure for requesting permission is fairly standard among publishers and other rights owners. Most require it to be in writing—many accept email inquiries but a number want a formal paper-based letter. The request should include the title, author, and brief description of your publication; its publisher and projected date of publication; the number of words; and the number of copies in the projected first printing. Then be prepared to wait. While the actual clearance process on the publisher’s end isn’t likely to take long, their permissions department is apt to be coping with hundreds, even thousands of pending requests.
By no means should this post be considered anything more than an initial bit of guidance on the subject. My intent is merely to pose some of the questions you need to ask as you consider using other writers’ words in your text. But fear not, there are resources that can assist you. For example, many books about the nuts and bolts of writing for publication devote sections to this subject. I rely on Section 4 of the new (16th!) edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.
Better yet, if your budget allows, you can hire a consultant to determine exactly which excerpts and quotations require permissions clearance and then do the legwork for you. One such firm is the aptly named Permissions Company, and this work encompasses pretty much all they do. Their advice and clearance procedures can save writers huge amounts of time and, potentially, expense as well.