We were talking last week on twitter about quoting and excerpting other works from the academic perspective. Got me thinking about it from the fiction writing perspective. You know what I mean -- those snippets of poems or song lyrics or other quoted material that authors like to use at the front of books, as chapter headings, and strewn through the text. Can you, should you, etc.?
Let's start by refreshing our understanding of copyright as it applies here, and then we'll talk about some other concerns that don't get discussed as frequently.
From a purely legal standpoint, the first question is whether a work is still protected under copyright laws. Copyright protections vary from nation to nation, though there are international agreements which provide added protection. Without getting into too much detail, just remember that if a work is protected by any copyright law, it's up to the owner of the copyright to decide whether you may use it. And they can make you pay, even if they consent to the use.
In the US, if a work is in the public domain, it is safe to use an excerpt. Here's a pdf explaining how to investigate the copyright status of a work.
People like to claim "fair use" when quoting someone else's work, but fair use only applies to non-commercial uses such as research, teaching, and news reporting. If you're writing fiction, it's almost never going to be a fair use situation. See this for more information if you want it.
So, let's say you know you can safely use a quote. What else should concern you about this? Three things:
Some common phrases get misquoted frequently. A good example of this comes from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." How many of you think the word still should be inserted after would? That's a common misquote. Always double check the exact phrasing to make sure you're getting it right.
Don't even get me started on the number of times I've run into this. The most common form of misattribution comes from assuming something is a common saying when it was authored by a specific source. You might think that a saying like, Discretion is the better part of valor, is a common saying which can be attributed to an anonymous source or not attributed at all. But some of us know that the source of that saying is Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One, when Falstaff said, "The better part of valour is discretion."
Another common form of misattribution comes when someone tries to ascribe a quote to a particular demographic. We see this when writers are trying to do some world-building and misuse quotes to try to bolster that world. Need an example? Imagine a book set in the world of professional tennis players. Now put that Falstaff line at a chapter heading and attribute it to "tennis coaching tips" instead of to the author, William Shakespeare. Or imagine something that isn't even a quote or paraphrase of an authored source, but something which is truly a common saying with obscure origins -- "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Now take that common saying and attribute it to a unique group: "Old Sicilian Proverb" instead of Anon.
Loss of Authority
Ever notice that the first part of authority is author? You're an author. Your job is to use your words to convey your ideas. Your authority comes from doing this in a way that leads others to recognize your unique knowledge, command, or expertise. Why would you delegate that authority to a different author? Why would you, in effect, signal to the reader that some other guy said it better than you can? Maybe we should just read that other guy instead. Maybe he's the one who really knows what's what.
You might think this logic doesn't apply to fiction writers, but it perhaps applies more to fiction writers than to nonfiction writers. Everyone accepts that nonfiction writers will rely on the ideas of other thinkers to generate new conclusions. But fiction? That's supposed to be original.
Can you think of any other reasons in favor or against the use of quotes and excerpts?