Sunday, January 10, 2010

Technical Topics -- Using somebody else's words

Sometimes you want to use somebody else's words. 
Can you?  How do you?  And how do you tell everybody you've done this?

Couple or three thoughts here.

1) Copyright.

Public Domain: If you're quoting something that's in the public domain you don't have to get anyone's permission. Stuff before 1923 is almost always in the public domain.

Here's the skinny on copyright and fair use.
If you write, you should know this stuff.
Here's a chart on what's in the public domain.

Copyright Protected: If something is inside copyright protection, a couple dozen words from a book or movie can be used without permission. That is Fair Use. Poems and songs, on the other hand, just about cannot be quoted. The titles of poems and songs can be.

Phrases in common usage do not need permission, even if they were also lyrics of a song.

He pulled his fur hood up over his head. "You sure as hell don't need to be a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Phrases now in common usage that originated as the lyrics of songs do not need permission.

I came out of CrossStictches, clutching two huge sacks of fabric remnants. 
"That seems thorough."  But he opened the car door for me.
"Let's just say I am a material girl."

2) Plagiarism.

You're not going to do this on purpose, but you also want to avoid looking like you're stealing words.

-- If a character is obviously quoting something, you don't have to attribute it to avoid the appearance of plagiarism. There is a presumption that a character in the process of quoting is using language that is not the author's.

"Our revels now are ended." Blood seeped from the side of his mouth. "And out little life . . . " he coughed, trying to get breath into him, "is rounded by a . . . a sleep."

-- If the words are well known, you do not need to attribute them.

Professor Marvin was the burning bright tyger of the Physics faculty and his fearful symmetry tried the patience of many a grad student.

She picked up her drink and looked me straight in the eyes. "What you have to ask yourself, punk," she smiled, "is, 'Do you feel lucky?'"

In deciding whether this is well-known language, you may assume an educated audience.

3)  What to attribute

If your words are not a character quoting, not a borrowing made obvious from context, and not words recognizable to an educated reader,
then you should attribute.

You do this whether the words are in copyright or not.  If you got permission to quote copyright material, you mention this
If you have been influenced by someone else's ideas, it is graceful to acknowledge this.

4) How to attribute.

-- You can insert the information that this is a borrowed language into the story itself.

"My luv is like a red, red rose." He grinned. "Sweetly sprung."
"Don't drag Bobbie Burns into this. What did you do with the guard?"

-- If you have just lots and lots of this attribution to do and many many choice factoids to add and historical wonders to expound upon, you can put do this in notes at the end.
I would advise against trying out footnotes until you are multipubbed and have acquired a reputation for eccentricity.

-- If you have just a few attributions to make, put them in the acknowledgements.

-- You use language like:

Every reader will recognize Captain Nemo's Nautilus in my 'Deep Challenger'.

The words, "Debts must be paid. The books must balance." come from the incomparable storyteller Robert A Heinlein.

My robots, like many before them, follow the Three Rules of Robotics laid down by Isaac Asimov.

The paragraph beginning, "The American Revolution was one cocked-up mess of a dogfight . . ." is taken from Marc Sigusmund's 'A Manifesto for Trumpet and Pennywhistle.'

-- End notes are submitted along with the manuscript.
The acknowledgements page, like the dedication, can be sent in with the manuscript, or you can add them at the time of the copyedits. You will be prompted to do so by the wise and canny editorial assistant.


  1. "I would advise against trying out footnotes until you are multipubbed and have acquired a reputation for eccentricity."

    lol I love footnotes in fiction. Well, so long as they don't try to be serious footnotes.

  2. I like footnotes meself. But there's no denying they do break the fictive haze ...

  3. Not in Jasper Fforde's books, they don't. They are an important part of his fictive haze... Admittedly, he's not generally using them for bibliographic data.

  4. Hi ros --

    I love Fforde. As you say -- it's part of his process, playing with the text. I wouldn't want to discourage anybody from doing this if it builds the effect they're after.

    There's somebody else I'm thinking of who does footnotes. A Historical Romance writer who's on my keeper shelf. Can't put my finger on the name just at the moment.