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The very foundation of publishing is the concept of intellectual copyright – that is, if you make something, it’s yours to replicate and distribute, and no one else can come along and, say, photocopy it.

As a publisher, if either republishing a ‘classic’ work, or when publishing a new work that quotes from other sources, you will of course have to think about the copyright implications. Even if, as most do, your author contract indemnifies the publisher against copyright claims that the author has plagiarised, the buck really stops with the publisher, so it’s best to think of such issues up front.

And of course, while it might be obvious that quoting from a famous book might be covered by copyright laws, all too often authors are surprised to learn they can’t quote song lyrics, or include pictures, so it’s an important part of the editor’s job to spot possible copyright issues where permissions might need clearing.

Here are a few things to look out for:
• Lyrics – whether five words or fifty, whether it’s the Pussycat Dolls or Stormzy. (NB just because a song is old doesn’t mean it’s in the public domain – the usual rules, as outlined below, apply)
• Lines from a film or TV show
• Quotes from any other books
• Quotes from a blog or social media comment

This list is not exhaustive, but is a good starting point.

And now, if you’ve identified any quotations, you need to work out whether they’re in copyright…

Copyright guidelines

(Please bear in mind that this is blanket advice, not legal guidelines. If you have any specific concerns or you aren’t sure, err on the side of caution and seek an expert’s advice. Members of organisations like the Publishers Association and the IPG have free access to a business-support hotline, which can be helpful in such situations.)

First, work out where you want to distribute your book. If you want to sell it internationally you’ll have to bear in mind international copyright rules. In this short guide we will focus on UK law, which is applicable to much of Europe, as well as ‘commonwealth territories’ (in publishing this covers Australia and Canada and others), and we will touch on US copyright law.


Copyright in the UK is governed by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which says that all intellectual copyright is automatically applied (i.e. you don’t have to do anything for copyright to apply) to all creative works, and is covered for 70 years from the end of the year the creator (we’ll assume author) died.

So what does that look like? Let’s take a couple of authors – how about the outrageous (and sadly neglected) author Tom Sharpe (1928–2013), and the wonderful Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).

Tom Sharpe’s books will therefore be in copyright from 2013, when he died, for a further 70 years, so 2083 – and until the end of that year: so his books will enter the public domain in the UK on the 1st of January 2084. A while to go.

Woolf, however, dying in 1941 (+70 =) entered the public domain on the 1st of January 2012.


There are slight complications – if a book was published posthumously, it is in copyright for 70 years from the date of first publication.

So back to Virginia: several of her works are still in copyright – for example, the pieces included in the 1976 collection of her work, Moments of Being. These will be in copyright until (1976+70) the 1st of January 2047.

If you’re quoting a translation, even if the ‘underlying copyright’ (i.e. the author) is in the public domain, you’ll have to check the translator’s dates, since they are covered by the same legal protections.


Things are a bit different in the States, and – dare we say – even more complicated, due to a hefty about-turn in the twentieth century. Generally speaking, works are protected by copyright for 70 years after the author’s death or 95 years after publication.

Because US estates were given the option of renewing copyright, but not everyone took this up, it’s not always easy to ascertain which books are still in copyright in the US.

What to do about copyright


If you want to go down this route, bear in mind that it’s going to cost. You might be pleasantly surprised and find out that it’s not always a huge amount of money – and indeed sometimes music bands will bemusedly say ‘Right on, go for it, how original!’

If it’s an author you’re hoping to quote, you’ll likely need to go through their publisher. A good place to start is looking that up online. Go to Waterstones (there are other good sites available!) and look up the book. You’ll see the publisher listed – you’ll then need to look up that publisher and find their rights or permissions contact. They will probably walk you through it (or, if they’re a bigger publisher, might well have an automated system – Faber, for example, have a tool that spits out an instant quote), but they will want to know a few details – who you’re quoting, how many words you want to use, the context (epigraph? in an essay? Using character names for your chapter titles?), and a bit of info about your book (paperback or hardback, RRP, print run and – all important – territory, i.e. where you want to sell your books – UK only or international?).

When you’ve given them all the information they need you’ll have a £ figure for permissions clearance, and then you can make an informed decision on whether to include or no.


If you haven’t got time to go through the permissions process (bear in mind, while some estates and publishers can expedite the process, on the whole it can take a while – many publishers ask for six months, and some take longer), or if you can’t shoulder the permissions costs, you’ll need to remove the quoted text.


Perhaps one of the most over-quoted phrases on the Internet, ‘Fair dealing’ is indeed a get-out-of-jail-free card – but it’s not something you decide. Even if you think ‘but I only quote ten words – I’m sure it’s fine’, the usual advice is to clear permissions and hope for this outcome. You can always negotiate!

Why? Because the fair-dealing clause doesn’t quantify or qualify. It doesn’t say ‘quotes under ten words are exempt’. And there’s a big difference between quoting the opening lines of a book, say, than a passing comment embedded in the book.


There are plenty of online sources if you want to go hunting for more information, and many books on the subject. Just a few include:

Last updated: 30th September 2023
Author(s): Will Dady, Renard Press