Quoting Someone Else's Work in a Novel

by Cody
(North Carolina)

Question: I'm writing a fictional novel, and I would like to quote from a few different sources (quotes my characters say in reference to another's actual work). The text in question is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his prison poem, DEATH. Do I need permission to quote a few lines from this (or other works)? Or do these rules not apply as firmly in novel writing as they would in academic writing? Thank you very much.

Answer: Please remember I am not a lawyer, so anything on this site cannot be considered legal advice.

That said, copyright generally extends until 50 years after an author's death. Since Bonhoeffer died in 1945, copyright may well have expired on his works. You may want to check to make sure, since copyright laws can vary from country to country.

If indeed Bonhoeffer's writings are now in public domain, you would be free to quote them without obtaining permission. Of course, it would be polite to acknowledge his authorship in some way by including his name along with the quotation.

You should check regarding the other works you want to quote, to see if they are in public domain or not. If not, you might need to seek permission of the copyright owner.

Generally, you can include small excerpts of a copyrighted work. The trouble is that some works of poetry are so short that it's hard to make a meaningful quote without exceeding the limit (this is especially true with song lyrics).

The copyright rules apply to all publications, whether fiction or nonfiction.

As an author, you should always follow the copyright rules for two main reasons...

1. So you and your publisher can avoid costly lawsuits.

2. As a writer, you likely want to make a living from your work. You would not want other people to violate your copyright and threaten your income by publishing copies of your work without paying royalties. So it behooves you to respect the rights of other creators.

We're all in this together.

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