General Question

phocks's avatar

Are famous quotes copyright protected?

Asked by phocks (137 points ) January 17th, 2011

I’m thinking of making a book of quotes, just random ones found on the internet like from Wikiquote and Tumblr etc. I will self-publish it and see if any copies sell. Will I need permission from the quote source? Will I need to pay a percentage for royalties?

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10 Answers

CyanoticWasp's avatar

In the first place, ‘famous’ quotations wouldn’t need to be copyrighted, since their fame prevents their use by another.

I can’t very well say that “Let there be light!” is my line, can I? Or “to be, or not to be, that is the question”. You already know the source. I’d be exposed (and laughed at) for trying to pass them off as my own work.

And the only values to be found in a book of quotations are:
1. The quote properly quoted (copied exactly, in other words), and
2. The correct attribution as to author and source (publisher, speech, etc.).

You won’t pass off quotes as your own, but you attribute them to the source.

coffeenut's avatar

The law regarding intellectual property is ridiculously complicated and often goes against common sense. You need to talk to an attorney….This site may help a little…

phocks's avatar

@CyanoticWasp I think you misunderstood. I wasn’t going to try to pass the quotes off as my own. Of course they were going to be attributed to the authors.

I just wanted to know if I needed to get permission from the copyright holder before I publish them.

anartist's avatar

How are you going to manage a better compilation than the editors of Bartlett‘s or Oxford‘s or Yale‘s books of quotes. Remember, they are just adding to the compilation they already have. It seems like a thankless task, doomed to b
fail.

I grab up quotes I like, and when they have date info as well as source so much the better. But I grab them to put a “quote of the day” widget on my website with quotes I especially like. It’s the editor in me and a self-definition thing I guess.

And if I never get around to making my widget, I send them to people or post them on FB or use them here sometimes.

phocks's avatar

@anartist It would certainly not be competing against those comprehensive quote books. It would perhaps fit a niche market, a kind of cute coffee table book.

I found an example here: http://www.keepcalmandcarryon.com/products/keep-calm-and-carry-on-book

coffeenut's avatar

@phocks lol, I have that book more or less….and the bookmark

ETpro's avatar

@coffeenut‘s warning to get competent legal counsel’s advice makes good sense. But as a writer, I can tell you that anything someone writes is copyrighted by the very nature of their having written (published) it. Formal copyright application is not required, but will definitely be obtained by any publishing house to establish a legal document proving when the claim of copyright was made. To negate that copyright, someone else would have to prove that they had written the same material at an earlier date.

That said, there is a concept in intellectual property rights called fair use. Fair use allows you to quote excerpts of a copyrighted work for comedic purposes, and to use short excerpts for things such as books of quotations or within ordinary writing as long as the work is accurately attributed to the original author. You just can’t claim it as your own work, which I understand you do not intend to do.

You might look at Bartelt’s Familiar Quotations or The Oxford Dictionary of Quotation and see how they list the source to provide context, and the date and publisher as well as author.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The following is based on seminars I’ve taken on copyright law and discussions with colleagues who have studied and/or practiced copyright law. The information may be out of date or based on a misunderstanding. It is always advisable to speak to a practicing lawyer.

This is an excellent question, but also one that’s rather difficult to answer. The reason is because there haven’t been enough test cases to set the boundaries. Strictly speaking, all the quotes you are planning to use are probably subject to copyright unless they are old enough to have passed into the public domain. If you were just planning on using a few quotes as epigraphs for longer essays, you wouldn’t have a problem so long as you cited them properly. But you want to publish and sell an actual book of quotes. This makes the fair use rationale much more difficult to maintain. I know lawyers who insist that you are technically free to use the quotes and others who assert with absolute certainty that you would lose in court. And frustratingly enough, those positions aren’t mutually exclusive. You can lose in court even when you technically should not.

Because of this lack of clarity, a convention has long been established regarding what to do in cases like this. Rather than risk an infringement suit, write to the copyright holders asking for permission to use the quotes in which you are interested. In many cases, the copyright holders will not be the authors of the work you are quoting. Be clear on exactly what you want to use, how it will be presented, and how the copyright holder will be acknowledged. Regarding the last of these, one standard thing to do is have a list at the end of the book completely citing the sources of the quotes. Some books are explicit that all quotes were used by permission, others are not. Odds are, however, that they all got permission. It’s just easier that way. But like @ETpro said, look at some other books of quotations to get an idea of what to do.

As I understand it, though, most copyright holders are fairly willing to go along with things like this. The purpose of copyright, after all, is to encourage distribution. Plus, they generally have nothing to lose so long as you have asked for permission (thereby reaffirming their copyright). Good luck!

P.S. Here is an eHow article on obtaining permission from publishers.

anartist's avatar

Sort of like my cute little book, The Portable Curmudgeon?

If you do that, you will need to establish a POV to make it stand out.

Jeruba's avatar

Bear in mind that many of the quotes you find online contain small or large transcription or scanning errors, and some are misattributed. This goes double or triple for quotes from poetry.

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