Getting Permission

Carolyn’s Rant – 1 April 2019

Most people say it is SO MUCH EASIER TO ASK FORGIVENESS THAN TO ASK PERMISSION — but that is not aways true! 

For instance, if you need copyright permission.

Unfortunately, quoting or excerpting someone else’s work falls into one of the grayest areas of copyright law.  The best advice you will find is:  Ask explicit permission for everything beyond ……  Some people say 300 words. Some say one line. Some say 10% of the word count.  Major legal battles have been fought over this question, but there is still no black-and-white rule.  As Jane Friedman says, “putting something in your own words or paraphrasing is usually okay, as long as it’s not too close to the way the original idea was expressed.” Then you don’t have to ask!

You do not need to seek permission for work that’s in the public domain. This isn’t always a simple matter to determine, but any work published before 1923 is in the public domain (and some things published after 1923). You do not need to ask when you’re simply mentioning the title or author of a work. It’s like citing a fact. Any time you state unadorned facts—like a list of the 50 states in the United States—you are not infringing on anyone’s copyright. Linking to something online does not require permission.

You do not have to ask if your use falls within “fair use,” which sounds simple but isn’t. The four criteria for determining Fair Use include:

1. the purpose of the use-for profit or for educational use.

2. The nature of the work copied;

3. The amount of material copy in comparison to the complete work; say 300 words from a book; and

4. the effect on the market or value of the work copied. (more info on Fair Use here:

Jane Friedman’s chart on copyright permissions

If in doubt, it is better to ask.  Jane Friedman created a sample permissions letter you can customize.  It is here:

Rant over.