Fair Use and Copyright – Quoting Other Works in Your Novel

Photograph by Michal Maňas, cropped, distributed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

Photograph by Michal Maňas, cropped, distributed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

My novel currently makes some allusions and references to other works, mostly film and television, including an outright quote from a famous movie. I started to get paranoid as to whether I would hit any copyright issues, so I performed a quick search on “fair use” which allows protection for certain uses of copyrighted material.

The United States Copyright Office’s provides a nice summary of the law.

Whether use is fair is determined by four factors: “(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” You can check find the statute here (most relevant to us is section 107).

For my purposes of using an eight-word quote from a movie, it’s fairly obvious that first two factors work against me because my use in my novel is commercial (assuming I want to make money off the novel), and the nature of the copyrighted work is one based on creativity and not simple statements of fact. However, the quote I’m using is a very tiny portion of the entirety of the film’s script, and my reference would be very unlikely to have a negative effect on marketability of the copyrighted work (a mild homage isn’t going to affect the sales of a classic film or television series or its related intellectual property).

So . . .

I’m not going to state my overall conclusion, lest it be construed as legal advice (this post should definitely NOT be taken as legal advice).  As the USCO says, “[i]f there is any doubt, it is best to consult an attorney.”

This post was originally titled “Quoting Movies in a Novel; Copyright and Fair Use.”

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