How to Use Quotations or Extracts in Writing

A copyright guide for writers showing how to legally use quotations or extracts from other authors in their work.

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Public Domain

Quoting the work of another writer can feel like an attractive or useful opportunity, especially if that quote perfectly reflects the mood or tone of your work, or sets up a chapter or story. Many books feature quotes at the beginning of either the story proper, or each chapter, but the actual legalities behind quoting someone else’s writing are not always understood.

From duplicating an entire poem to using a single line from a song’s lyrics, any and all quoting must be done legally. Without legal consideration, whether through ignorance or purposeful disregard, quotes and extracts can result in prosecution. In addition, agents and publishers will want no part of a work that reproduces others without validation.

To decide whether to use a quote, first you need to determine whether you need permission. There are certain occasions where permission does not need to be sought, but if in doubt it is always best to check with the copyright holder.

Public Domain

Works enter into public domain after a specified time from the death of the original author. In the UK, that is 70 years after their death. For multiple authors, it is 70 years after the death of the final surviving author. For sound recordings, it is 70 years from publication (or creation if not released). Although that means some works will be in the public domain in the UK, other countries can specify 100 years or more, and that must be considered when publishing internationally. The USA has more complicated rules than the UK, with some copyrights lasting longer and others less.

For example, The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot is classified as public domain in the US, yet in the UK and the rest of the world it is still under copyright. As such, US publications (and US-based websites) can freely reproduce it, whilst the rest of the world has to gain permission from the rights holders.

Religious texts are not always public domain, and should be checked as per the text and the specific translation. For example, the rights to various translations of the Bible are held by the Crown (through Cambridge University Press), Thomas Nelson (through HarperCollins), and various other publishers, and permission must be sought for any extracts other than non-commercial educational use.

When quoting public domain writing, ensure it is within the public domain in all countries where the writing will be released.

Creative Commons

Works classified under the various creative commons licences can be reproduced with appropriate and stated credit, but those credits and a reference to the specific licence must be included. Creative commons also cannot be assumed, but must be explicitly stated on the original work by the rights holder.

Fair Use

Fair use—also referred to as fair dealing or fair practice—allows the quoting of extracts of works still under copyright under certain circumstances without gaining permission. It must be carefully adhered to in order to prevent copyright infringement, and the interpretation of some allowances are questionable and should not be exploited.

Fair use may be allowed for quotations or excerpts as long as the work is published (in other words, has been made available to the public), no more than is necessary is quoted, the source and name of the author is included, and fair use can be justified as either: inclusion for the purpose of news reporting, incidental inclusion (as in, used in the background without due attention being drawn and within a normal context—this is more for video and audio than written word—or unintentionally included), for educational use (where local laws allow), or for criticism or comparison.

Simply including a quote from a work does not constitute fair use. The use must be justified, and without surrounding text providing a context (either by reporting the news, discussion for educational purposes, criticism or comparison) a quotation or extract would be infringing upon copyright law. As such, fair use is almost entirely unused in fiction, as it is designed for non-fiction works.


Under UK law, there is an exception for copyright for the purposes of caricature, parody or pastiche. Bear in mind that a parody is not a direct quote, but rather a reinterpretation designed to mock or spoof an original. As such, this cannot be used to directly quote, but rather create something similar (with obvious caricature, parody or pastiche).

With Permission

If the quote is protected by copyright (which will likely be the case) and fair use is not being claimed (which, in fiction or poetry, is more than likely) then permission must be sought. Some rights holders will wish to charge for the use of their work, whilst others will offer them for free. Whatever the case or agreement you make, you need permission to be granted in writing and you must keep that permission safe. Even if you are simply quoting from your friend’s writing, you still need permission, and you still need it in writing. That is your legal right to reproduce that which is under copyright.


Copyright law is difficult and complicated, so it is worth consulting a solicitor. Whilst the idea of dropping in a song lyric or poetic stanza mid-chapter might seem appealing, or using an extract as the opening of a book might feel right, it needs to be done correctly. Failure to do so could cost you so much more than you realise, so make sure you have everything you require in place.


Disclaimer: This is merely a guide. If in doubt please consult a professional for legal advice.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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