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Quick Guide: Permissions

Is the work in copyright?

You need permission to quote from works that are in copyright. The duration of copyright for most works is until 70 years after the end of the year of the author’s death. But there are a number of variations: e.g. the works of non-European authors, and, in some instances material that was unpublished at the time of the author’s death.

Revived Copyright: Until 1st January 1996, copyright lasted until 50 years from the end of the year of the author’s death – copyright was then extended to life plus 70 years. That means that some works which were out of copyright went back into ‘revived copyright’ on 1st January 1996.

If you want to quote from a revived copyright work (i.e. written by a European author who died between 1st January 1925 and 31st December 1944), you can do so without having to clear permission. You must, however, give the copyright holder (usually the author’s heir, but check on the WATCH website – notice of what you intend to do, and you may have to pay a fee.

For more details about copyright:

Quick Guide to Copyright and Moral Rights, available from The Society of Authors (free to members, £2 post free in the UK to non-members)


For US copyright refer to the Library of Congress Copyright Office or call the Public Information Office on (202) 707 3000

When do I need permission?

Anthologies: Permission should be obtained for the use of any quotation of copyright material, however short, to be included in an anthology.

Collections for use in schools: There are special provisions covering these in the Copyright Act. The Society can give information on request. E-mail to

Quotations for ‘purposes of criticism or review’: If the quotation can be regarded as ‘fair dealing … for purposes of criticism or review’ (a phrase not defined in the Copyright Act), whether of the work quoted or of another work, you need not ask permission, but must ensure that either in the text itself or in an acknowledgements page you give the title and the author of the work quoted.

It is not possible to give specific guidelines on what constitutes ‘fair dealing’; it is a matter of impression and common sense according to the circumstances. However, it may be relevant to take into account the following:

the length and importance of the quotation(s)
the amount quoted in relation to your commentary
the extent to which your work competes with or rivals the work quoted
the extent to which works quoted are saving you work

Some years ago The Society of Authors and the Publishers Association stated that they would usually regard as ‘fair dealing’ the use of:

a single extract of up to 400 words or a series of extracts (of which none exceeds 300 words) to a total of 800 words from a prose work extracts to a total of 40 lines from a poem, provided that this did not exceed a quarter of the poem
The words MUST be quoted in the context of ‘criticism or review’.

NOTE: While this statement does not have the force of law, it carried considerable weight with a judge experienced in copyright in a leading infringement case. It does not mean, however, that a quotation ‘for purposes of criticism or review’ in excess of these limits cannot rank as ‘fair dealing’ in some circumstances.

Other Quotations: For quotations other than those in the above categories you should ask permission to use any ‘substantial’ extract from a copyright work, since copyright is infringed if a ‘substantial’ part is used.

NOTE: The difficulty, once again, is that the meaning of ‘substantial’ is not defined, but is a matter of fact and degree. A short extract may be a vital part of the work and it has often been said that the test is much more about the quality than the quantity of what has been used. A few sentences taken from a long novel or biography are unlikely to constitute a ‘substantial’ part of the original work, but a few lines of poetry may be. The only safe course, if in doubt, is to ask permission if the quotation is not covered by the special schools exception or by fair dealing (see the notes above).

Who grants permission?

With published material, it is best to write first to the publishers of the original edition of the book, who are most likely to hold the rights for anthology use or quotations.

Address your letter to the Permissions Department.

If the original publishers do not control the rights, they will forward your letter to whoever does.

NOTE: It is very much in your interest to clear permissions as early as possible. You may be put in a difficult position if your book is about to go to press and permission is refused or fees are very high.

When contacting the rights holder for permission, be sure to include the following information:

The name, address and other contact details of the person or company to be invoiced

The name, address and other contact details of the individual to whom the formal letter should be sent (if different)

Details of the work in which the extract is to appear – author, title, publisher, territory required, edition/s (eg hardback, paperback, audio, electronic, website), estimated print quantity of each edition, course (for photocopying)

Details of the extract you wish to reproduce – author, title, number of words if prose, number of lines if poetry, language (if not English)

When sending a permission fee to an author or agent, be sure to state what it is for, giving the permission reference number (if relevant) or the source (title and author) of the extract and not just the name of the book in which it is to be used.

What if I can’t trace whoever is entitled to give permission?

This is always a headache and there are seldom any shortcuts. Here are a few suggestions of how to proceed:

First of all, check the WATCH website which lists an ever-increasing number of copyright holders
Check with The Society of Authors (

If the book you want to quote from was published by a firm no longer in existence, write to the publishers of another book by the same author; they may be able to tell you who owns the author’s copyrights

In the case of unpublished works held in a library, the librarian will probably be able to put you in touch with the right person. If not, follow the procedure above. Failing that, there are special rules covering old unpublished works, including letters, kept in libraries, museums or other institutions, where they are open to public inspection.

They apply in cases where (i) more than 50 years have elapsed since the end of the calendar year in which the author died; and (ii) more than 100 years have elapsed since ‘the time, or the end of the period, at or during which the work was made’.
Where other methods of tracing copyright fail:

Consult the Will of the author. Where copyrights are not separately mentioned in a Will, they simply form part of the testator’s residuary Estate. For more information on tracing UK Wills, see the Family Records Centre website at Have a letter published in the Times Literary Supplement (this is often done by authors of literary biographies) or advertise in the TLS or other suitable paper.

Unpublished letters, in particular, often cause problems. The writer of the letter owns the copyright while the letter itself is owned by the recipient, or anyone to whom the letter may have been sold. If, however, the letters are privately owned, the owner may not know who owns the copyright in them.

What if I have made every possible enquiry and still cannot trace the copyright owner?

You have to decide whether to omit the extract, or to include it with the risk that the copyright owner will subsequently come forward and object.

NOTE: If you decide to take this risk, then you should state in the acknowledgements that every effort has been made to trace the copyright owner and that anyone claiming copyright should get in touch with you.

If you know who owns the copyright, but he or she does not answer your letters, a possible course is to send a registered or recorded delivery letter to the owner, explaining the situation and saying that if you hear nothing more within four weeks, you will assume that there is no objection to the extract being used. It should be emphasised, however, that this course is in no way supported by law and should only be used as a last resort.

In either of the above situations, where you decide to go ahead without permission, you should paraphrase as much as possible, keeping verbatim quotation to the minimum.

How much will the fee be?

It is not possible to suggest rates, not least because there are so many variables, but members are welcome to contact the Society for advice on specific instances.

Useful links

WATCH (Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders)

Family Records Centre

A. P. Watt (literary agency)

US Library of Congress Copyright Office

Trace Line