Michael on Permissions

The following is a guest post from Associate Editor Michael Sivilli about a topic that occupies much of his time and interest: permissions.

Permission to reprint sounds like such an ominous concept when it comes to book publishing. It sounded that way to me when I started in this business years ago. I remember thinking about it back then and saying to myself, “Authors will take material from previously published books, articles, or anything else, and use it in their own books.”

Then I thought, of course, “Why would someone want to do that? It’s your own book. Wouldn’t you want it to be 100 percent yours?” Then I realized that past examples of “similar similarities,” as an old English professor of mine used to say, could help get a point across, and even strengthen that point.

Later I was told that permission is most often needed to reprint because an author’s work is copyrighted, and the author deserves to make a living from his or her work. That is the basis of copyright law. And so, if one wants to use part of someone’s previously published material, one must ask for permission. Furthermore, sometimes one not only needs permission to reprint material, but has to pay a fee to the copyright holder of the material to be reprinted. Fees are set by the copyright holder; there’s no standard to follow here.

So again, way back in my publishing career, I decided to clear all this up and become an expert on permissions, as I was later dubbed by my Managing Editor at that time. I learned all kinds of things in a course I took, and even got along famously with the instructor of that course, who was a legal representative with a major entertainment company that owns publishing groups. The instructor taught us that essentially, an author needs permission for anything when another source is mentioned, no matter how much material is being used. I took this new knowledge back to the office with me, and most of my colleagues were amazed. So we were going to alter our in-house rules, which at the time actually stated that permission is only needed to reprint if (a) You were reprinting an illustration or (b) the text you were reprinting was of a certain volume (i.e., something to the effect of 75 words or more). I later learned that the instructor was wrong.

And here’s the point I’ve been trying to reach: You’d be surprised that sometimes where an author thinks he or she will need permission, it’s often not necessary and vice versa. Example: An author writes something like, “As Ken Blanchard says in The One Minute Manager, ‘Help people reach their full potential; catch them doing something right.’ We can apply this to our own managerial position, and develop a very strong staff.” Although this is a direct quote from the Blanchard book, it by no means needs permission to reprint. It will in no way help to increase sales of the book being published, and besides, it’s too short. Fair use comes into effect here, which means that a brief excerpt can be used without permission for such purposes as example, criticism, news reporting, or research. As long as the source is cited, no permission is needed. It should also be pointed out that something like this sometimes tends to be a bit of an advertisement for the source.

Now if excerpts of 50 words or more are being used throughout the book being published for content purposes (as case studies, etc.), permission would be needed. Another example is: If an author took the chapter on appraisals from the aforementioned Blanchard book, and created a chapter for the new manuscript on the same concept, rewording it but using Blanchard’s ideas, the thinking might be that permission is not necessary because nothing is quoted. Wrong. The author would need to submit the entire new chapter to Blanchard’s publisher (or the copyright holder if not the publisher), and request permission, citing the book whence the material is from, and exactly where in the book. As for illustrations, whether just the concept or the entire illustration is used, permission is probably needed.

Permissions needs to be taken care of at the outset of submission of a manuscript to a publisher. Get your permissions, and pay any fees upfront. It all makes for smoother sailing through the publishing process. Dealing with acquiring permissions in the middle of the publishing process can delay a book’s scheduled publication date.

Michael Sivilli has been an Associate Editor with AMACOM, the books publishing division of the American Management Association, since 1988.

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