Fair Use in Novels



I often get questions from Anons asking me what is appropriate to use in a novel, from song quotes to character names of wildly popular characters from other books (names that are obviously more unique than just Sarah or Alice or Amelia). So I’m going to lay the groundwork of what writers can and can’t use in their novels—or for their novels.

  1. Quotes from song lyrics. You can’t do this. Period. If you want to use quoted song lyrics, you would have to get permission from the artists themselves—and you would likely have to pay a heady sum of money to obtain that permission. A big part of the reason why you can’t do this is because song lyrics are often so short in the first place, and if you misquote even one word, you run the risk of being sued. In fact, you run the risk of being sued period if your book is somehow published with quoted song lyrics from an actual band. 
  1. Names of fictional characters. One Anon asked me if he or she could use a fictional character’s name as a nickname for one of his/her characters. As far as I know, this is not copyright infringement, especially if the character whose nicknamed Harry Potter does not in anyway resemble the actual Harry Potter. It is also not copyright infringement to use a fictional character’s name in passing. For example, in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, Leonard frequently mentions Holden Caulfield as a comparison to himself. Holden Caulfield, however, is not an actual character in the book. There’s also the question of cameos, and whether or not a writer can use an actual character as a cameo in the book. This is on shaky ground, because using a published fictional character as a cameo technically is not copyright infringement, until that character actually starts talking. However, from the article I linked to you, you still run the risk of being sued. Fan fiction is an entirely different matter, as most writers don’t profit from this work, and authors want to please enthusiastic readers. (I would both cry and feel EXTREMELY flattered if someone were to ever write a fanfiction of my book, When Stars Die.)
  1. Public domain. Any book before 1923 is fair use. Granted this does not mean you can re-write the entire book. Basically this means you can quote these works, while attributing their authors to them, in your novels. Frenchie,from Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez, frequently talks about Emily Dickinson and quotes her as well. Libba Bray puts a part of Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shallot, in A Great and Terrible Beauty. And when I do revisions for my novels, I’d like for my protagonist to quote parts of Edgar Allen Poe. 
  2. Titles. You don’t need permission to use song titles, movie titles, book titles, television titles, and so on and so forth. You can also include the names of things, place, and events and people in your work without permission. I mention Paula Dean in brief passing in the current work I’m writing, because she owns a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, the place my character lives. 
  3. Pictures. I’m primarily talking about if you’re self-publishing or are allowed to work with your publisher (usually small press) on designing the cover. ANY stock photos listed on any stock photo website is fair game and can be photoshopped as much as you want to. However, you often have to buy these photos, but once you pay for them, they are yours to do with what you want. Unfortunately, you run the risk of having a similar book cover as another book, especially if you don’t do too much to that image beyond slapping your name and title of the book on it. The cover for When Stars Die received a heavy makeover, so it is not likely that I will find another book using my exact cover. I may find a book using the girl on the cover, but the plum blossoms, the colors, how the girl was edited, and my title and name are probably going to be next to impossible to find on another book. 
  4. Quoting famous people. If the quote from, let’s say, a famous speech in the past, is over 100 years old, that work is likely in the public domain, so it’s fair to use quotes from  Georgie Washington or another popular figure. 
  5. Referencing facts. If you’re referencing facts, like how the universe was made, this is not copyright infringement—they are unadorned facts. For the current novel I’m working on, I did use a website to help Gene’s teacher explain black holes, because Gene uses black holes as a motif to describe how people can have an effect on one another. However, because this is knowledge that you can pick up from any text book or even an astronomy class you took, I don’t need to quote the source I took it from because I did not repeat word-for-word what that website said. The website simply listed facts that you can find anywhere from a legitimate source. 
  6. Using quotes from TV, films, or advertising. These are copyrighted, so don’t use them, unless you want to get sued. 

For now, these are the only points I can think of on what writers are allowed to use and not use in their novels. If someone can think of anything more, feel free to re-blog and add to this list!

Ask Box is always open, and I think this is the last day for my book/Amazon gift card giveaway, so you better enter while you can!

Regarding naming (because I had to research this for one of my characters): names CANNOT be copyrighted. At all. HOWEVER. The exception is if the name is recognizable on a brand level, such as Harry Potter or Mickey Mouse. So if there is a character names Joe McShmo and you name a character Jo McShmo, you CAN do that if the first Joe is not 1. the flagship character or the brand and 2. the name/brand is a household name (as in the average person will think of only Jo McShmo #1 when they hear that name). It’s a very interesting caveat.

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