If you’re borrowing stuff written (which means presumably owned) by other people, you’ll want to get permission to use their intellectual property in your work.
While I’m not an attorney and am not giving any legal advice here, I am trying to make you aware that you cannot just take other people’s writing (including song lyrics) and plunk their words into your writing.
There’s no specific number of words or other easy measure of what you can quote without permissions, so err on the side of protecting yourself from legal action by asking for permission or talking to an intellectual property attorney prior to using copyrighted material.
Some things you may need permission for:
- song lyrics
- quotations from literary works
- long passage of text
You don’t want to be the next author making news because you “inadvertently used someone else’s words” in your article or book, as happened in 2002 to well-respected, Harvard-connected historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. (NOTE: You’ll have to click past the intro to the site to get to the Forbes’ article.)
When looking for permission, be aware you need to obtain it from the copyright owner, as no one else can grant it.
Works deemed in the public domain can be used as you wish, but professionalism requires you provide attribution and give your reader your resource. However, as long as you’re not trying to deceive your reader that the information you’re using from a public domain source is original with you, you don’t have to give credit. Still, I can’t imagine any professional, ethical writer who wouldn’t. Why risk a fraud charge?
Fair use is one of those concepts that’s hard to pin down. As I said, there’s no specific word count, which makes sense since written material comes in different lengths. It is my understanding that the key thing to look for in determining fair use is whether or not you’re infringing on the copyright owner’s ability to market (and profit) from his/her original work. If you offer the main point, if you offer the slogan, if you offer the poem or song lyric, you may be doing just that, no matter how many words you’re using.
When in doubt, ask an attorney or get permission. If you guess something’s fair use and you guess wrong, you’re setting yourself for a copyright infringement case and you don’t need that.