Plagiarism | Factsheets
WritersServices Factsheet 17 by Michael Legat
As soon as you have written down or recorded something it is your copyright, which means that no one else may copy it without your permission. Unfortunately, the same is true of any other writer, so if you want to quote someone else you cannot do so without clearing it first with whoever owns the rights. If you fail to do so, you can be sued for plagiarism.
Another name for plagiarism is stealing, which is what it comes to if you take another author’s work without acknowledgement and pass it off as your own.
You may be accused of plagiarism, even if you have not quoted another writer’s words, if you have obviously copied that writer’s approach and style.
Facts are usually in the public domain and can be quoted freely, but you will also be guilty of infringing an author’s copyright if, without any acknowledgement, you quote a fact which the author in question has discovered for the first time.
For any quotation from another author’s work, you must acknowledge the source – i.e. the author’s name and the name of the work from which the quotation is taken, and usually its publisher – and any other requirements of the person or firm which gives you permission to use the material.
Of course, you do not need to obtain permission to quote from a work which is out of copyright (which usually means seventy years or more after the author’s death).
UK copyright laws contain clauses which refer to ‘fair dealing’, allowing a certain number of words, or lines of poetry, to be quoted without permission, but only in the course of criticism or review. You should not expect fair dealing to cover an excerpt which is not used in the course of criticism or review. Some authors and publishers take a generous view towards short quotations, and you can probably quote half a dozen words or so without any problem. But it is best always to check. Go first to the publisher, who will probably be empowered by the copyright owner to grant the permission and to name the relevant fee and any conditions of use.
In the event that you fail to find the owner of the copyright in material that you wish to quote, it is advisable to insert a note in the book saying that you have attempted unsuccessfully to obtain the necessary permission, and inviting the owner to get in touch with you so as to clear it.
The fees that you will be asked to pay for permission to quote can vary considerably, and the more eminent the author from whose work you are quoting, the higher the fee will be. Quotations from the lyrics of popular songs are particularly expensive.
You should not apply for any necessary permissions until you have found a publisher for your work, because you will then be able to assess the total costs, to seek the publisher’s advice, and avoid paying for material which you may not use in the end.
This factsheet links to Michael Legat's book An Author’s Guide to Publishing
© Michael Legat 2001