Obtaining Permissions

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 10 2010

I did a blog post a while back about using poetry and music in your work. In that blog a lot of people had questions about how you go about getting permission and whether or not you need an agent to do so and whether or not it’s an agent’s job to obtain permissions for you. I debated answering these questions in the comments, but then realized that it would probably benefit more of you if I wrote an entire post.

Getting permission to use the copyrighted material of others isn’t simply asking them to sign a letter, it means paying them to sign a letter for the rights in certain territories. In other words, you have to get permission to be able to reprint the work not just in the United States, but throughout the world on the chance your book sells to other countries. And, depending on the work, the author, the music, the amount you’re using, and the type of permissions you need, it can get very costly. Which is why I wouldn’t worry about obtaining permissions until you have sold the book to a publisher.

By waiting not only until the book has sold, but until you can talk to your editor, you’ll know exactly what kind of permissions your publisher requires, you can get a permission form from the publisher, and you’ll know which material is going to stay in the book and which material your editor might suggest you edit out. Because the last thing you want to do is spend a lot of money getting permissions for a book that might never sell or for material in the book that your editor thinks needs to be cut out.

As for the agent’s role: Unfortunately, an agent is not responsible for obtaining the permissions for you, just as an agent is not responsible for writing your book or getting artwork for your book (if you choose to have artwork). Since it’s part of the material you’re supplying the publisher, it’s your responsibility. Sure, an agent can help and guide you through the process, but it’s unlikely she’ll be making the calls to publishers for you.


***Let me also add a quick note. The cost of any permission is the responsibility of the author. While the publisher will tell you what’s needed, they won’t base your advance on the potential cost of permissions and they won’t pay for them for you.

25 responses to “Obtaining Permissions”

  1. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Thanks for further clarifiction. I think my movie-buff characters are okay.

    I think one other thing about this we need to remember is how referencing songs (and movies) *dates* the story. Kind of like slang, most movie and music trends pass quickly, so they must be handled carefully, I think.

    This means if it's a contemporary, Michael Jackson might be okay in YA, for example, because he's a legend now. Any lesser known 1980's star would be lame and yank today's teen right out of the story.

  2. Jessica,

    Thanks for this post. Could you clarify if any specific reference to a song or film title (not the quotes or lyrics) needs this consideration?

    I agree it can 'date' a book, but sometimes these things can enhance a character. Saying someone went out to buy the latest Hannah Montana album because she bought *everything* Hannah adds to character description.

  3. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I second Elaine. I'm curious whether it costs anything to reference a book/movie title or a company name.

    Thanks (as always) for your informative posts! 🙂 -Emily

  4. Avatar MaryQ says:

    I guess I'm 'thirding' Elaine. Is permission/payment required for mentioning an artist & his song, but not the lyrics?
    I agree that referencing certain movies, songs, etc can date a story, but at the same time, it can also give the story more depth. I think readers like things they can reference. It makes the story & characters more real to them.
    Thank you, Jessica, for the information.

  5. Avatar Mira says:

    This is really helpful – I didn't know any of this. 🙂

    I think, given how expensive it is, and it would come out of my pockets (which are empty), that using other people's work – right now anyway – is not a good idea for me. It's really good to know that in advance!

  6. And that's why I decided to write my own lyrics instead of using Aerosmith's.

  7. I'm pretty sure a title can't be copyrighted, but it can be trademarked – a slightly different bucket of worms.

  8. Avatar jfaust says:

    Permission would be using lyrics, passages, etc. Referencing something does not require permission.

  9. Avatar Rosemary says:

    Hi Jessica,

    This month's issue of the Romance Writers Report includes an article about copyright and fair use that touches on many of the issues you raise here.

    (RWA members automatically get this publication.)

  10. Avatar Bethany says:

    Very interesting topic; thanks!

  11. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Agree, Elaine, and this is how I handled my movie-buffs and their vast DVD collection.

    The fun part of it was the end when they finally got to go to a new movie in a REAL theater! By then, it didn't matter to them what that movie was (so I didn't need to say what it was), only that they got to go to a real movie theater for the first time in their lives.

    It's scenes like that which remind me why I write stories in the first place, whether they ever see the inside of Barnes & Noble or not.

  12. This is great, thank you! I guess I have to re-think my novel in which the dialogue consists only of lyrics from the movie Xanadu. Darn it.

  13. Avatar Anonymous says:

    That's why I don't deal with using lyrics. You don't need permission just to use the title of a song, so if I need to set the mood, I might write something like "Jimmy Buffet's 'Margaritaville' played in the background." No lyrics used–don't need 'em anyway. Mission accomplished.

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    you can't quote lyrics, poetry or other books in new books? what are you getting/paying permission to do? to quote something? can't you just cite it?

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    No, you can't just cite something. That applies to academic papers because there's a fair use exemption for scholarship/criticism. Note that the exemption also places limits on how much of that material you can quote.

    There's no fair use exemption for including someone else's material in your commercial work.

  16. Thanks for clarifying, Jessica. I know sometimes mentioning certain titles or artists might date a book, but depending on the situation, this might be ok.

    And FWIW, Meg Cabot mentioned in a speech at RWA that her referencing the Backstreet Boys in her 1st book is what finally peeked interest w/an agent. Apparently the agent was a huge fan and it helped her like the story more.
    Thx again–I read your blog daily and appreciate your input 🙂


  17. Am I correct in assuming that this doesn't apply to works that have entered the public domain?

  18. Avatar Jemi Fraser says:

    I've often wondered about this – thanks for the info 🙂

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    what about epigraphs?

  20. Avatar Heidi Willis says:

    I was able to write a poet and gain permission to include several lines of poetry in my debut book, but the song lyrics I opted to reference instead of quote. The hassle and expense of using the exactly lyrics wasn't worth it,and I think it actually made the writing stronger.

    Now, in my new book, I'm very conscious of not writing anything that relies on copyright material. It's easier to not write something that NEEDS the lyrics and then have to figure out how to edit it than to just write it without it in the first place.

  21. Avatar _*Rachel*_ says:

    Ditto on Kristen.

    What about song whose lyrics have been around a hundred years or so, but have only recently been recorded?

  22. Avatar mkcbunny says:

    This is very clear and helpful. Thanks for posting about the subject.

  23. Avatar Ryan says:

    One thing I'm wondering about is if this same thing applies to mentioning book titles and other authors in your work. Say you give the name of the book, but don't use any of the material about it beyond just the mention. Do you have to get permission to use the title of the book and the author's name?

  24. Avatar Qraig says:

    Can you paraphrase lyrics and not need permission? Or is that a no-no?

  25. Avatar Nishant says:

    Kind of like slang, most movie and music trends pass quickly, so they must be handled carefully, I think.

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