How to avoid copyright infringement

Though you’ve finished writing your book, it still might not be ready for self-publication, if only for legal reasons.

Legal reasons? “Don’t we live in nation with freedom of the press?” you ask.

We do. Still, there are the legalities and liability of copyright infringement to consider. You don’t want to be sued for inadvertently violating federal laws. If you’ve violated copyright law by improperly using someone else’s work as your own (and ignorance of doing so is not a satisfactory defense), the fines can be stiff and legal expenses high, potentially running well over $100,000.

The basic law is this: If a work is copyrighted, you can reproduce it only if you give the author credit for it (not doing so amounts to plagiarism) and if you receive permission to use the work.

As with all of our laws, though, it’s not quite that simple. Most notably here, there are two exceptions that relieve you from having to receive permission to use another’s work. The first is fair use. Brief excerpts of another’s work may be used if your purpose is scholarship, news reporting, criticism or commentary. There’s no perfect system for determining what equates to fair use, but you probably could quote a sentence or two of a book without asking for permission while quoting the entire chapter would be infringement. The second exception is public domain. Such works include (but are not limited to) the laws passed by governments and in the United States anything printed before 1923. So, you’re free to reprint the entire Constitution of the United States or Washington Irving’s works without needing permission (Though to avoid plagiarizing you’ll need to reference them and not claim them as your own writing.).

If required to obtain permission to use another’s work, get that permission in writing. It provides the strongest protection to you as an author.

To avoid plagiarizing, cite who wrote the words and place those words within quotation marks.

Some common copyright infringement issues that frequently occur in self-published books, and how to meet the fair use standard, include:
• Quoting other books or material – Don’t quote more than 250 words from a book or 10 percent of an article (magazine, newspaper, website), letter or diary. For poetry, limit yourself to two lines.
• Quoting song lyrics – Don’t quote more than two lines.
• Developing a character used in another person’s work – You’ll likely violate trademark law if using a character from another person’s novel, movie or television show done since 1923. Many characters are in the public domain, however. Where it gets dicey is when a public domain character has been used in a modern movie, television show, or radio broadcast. For example, Pinocchio is a public domain character (as are other fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf), but if the Pinocchio you present bears a likeness to the one appearing in the Disney movie, you’re walking a crumbling legal cliffside.

Finally, each nation has its own copyright laws and standards. Since self-publishing allows for easy distribution in foreign countries, you should research those nation’s laws. For example, the King James Bible is in the public domain in the United States but is protected by copyright in the United Kingdom.

For additional information about copyright laws, consider going to the U.S. Copyright Office website  or reading Chapter 4, “Rights and Permissions,” of “The Chicago Manual of Style”. If ever in doubt about copyright infringement, always seek legal advice; you should obtain it from someone who specializes in this, however.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.