Understanding sources and permissions – a simple guide

In this post, Lottie Galpin shares her knowledge and experience as a writer and editor on the tricky area of sources and permissions.

Something that often comes up when I’m working on ELT materials is the issue of sources and permissions. The ins and outs of what you can use can be a bit confusing. So I thought it would be useful to try to demystify the topic a bit.

 

Sources

Keep accurate records

Fact-checking can be fiddly, time-consuming work so, as an author, you’ll make your editor’s life easier if your sourcing is accurate. It’s to your advantage as well, because if there are factual mistakes in what you’ve written, you may need to revise the content further down the line.

Each editor will have a different preference for how you list the sources, so it’s worth asking them how they would like them to be presented. It’s also a good idea to save copies of any sources – copy and paste to a separate document, take screenshots, or save as PDFs. After all, websites disappear every day.

Choose good sources and cross-check facts

The Internet has made sourcing information really easy, but it’s important to choose reliable sources and cross-reference them with two or three other sources. My interpretation of reliable sources would be things like government or charity websites, recognised encyclopedias, newspapers and magazines. You’ll need to use some discretion here as some newspapers and websites are likely to be less reliable than others. Finally, check the date of your sources to be sure you’re using the most up-to-date information.

Permissions

When you need to seek permissions

If you’re writing for a publisher, you’ll hopefully have a brilliant brief from your editor that explains exactly what you can and can’t use as sources without getting into permissions problems. However, even if your brief is amazing, a good basic rule of thumb is to check with your editor. It may be that the source or accompanying photos are expensive to use, the copyright is owned by multiple people, the permissions process is tricky or slow, or the owner of the source material has an affiliation with a specific publisher.

If you’re interested in self-publishing, or you’d just like to know more about the nitty-gritty, there are some basic guidelines that are useful to know. As a very rough guide, if you reuse any of the following, you’ll need to seek permissions: an extract from a newspaper/journal/magazine, prose, poetry, drama, music or song lyrics, screenshots of websites, and images (pictures, photos, cartoons, maps, figures, tables). This is still the case if the information appears on a website.

The reason you’ll need to seek permissions is that these works are protected by copyright. Copyright protection starts the minute a work is recorded, whether it is published or unpublished, and typically lasts for a fixed period. It’s worth remembering that duration and definition of copyright varies from country to country and there may be multiple copyright holders for one work. It’s also worth bearing in mind that there may be changes to copyright law post-Brexit. Government websites or publishing associations are good places to check the details of these laws; this is the UK government’s guidance on copyright law that explains exactly what sources you can use without getting into permissions problems.

There are exceptions to copyright laws. One of the most well-known in the UK is referred to as fair dealing. On the surface, this term seems pretty simple: you can use parts of copyright material for research, private study, criticism and review or news reporting without seeking formal permission. However, it’s a bit trickier than it first appears. There’s actually no clear-cut definition of fair dealing; each case must be assessed separately to consider a) whether the amount of the original work taken is reasonable and appropriate and b) whether the new work affects the market for the original work. In other words, is it so similar that it could be a substitute for the original? As you can imagine, the amount which is judged ‘reasonable and appropriate’ varies. Two lines from a newspaper are very different from two lines from a novel, so fair dealing can’t be relied on to avoid seeking permissions. If in doubt, check with your in-house contact.

In addition to fair dealing, some copyright owners (i.e. publishers) allow the use of up to 400 words of a book chapter, or extracts from a whole book of up to 800 words. However, you should tread extremely carefully with this one. The publishers you’re working for will probably all have different rules about how much of a text they’re happy to use without requesting permissions. Some may want to clear the use of every single word, whereas others may be happy to use 100 to 200 words without checking permissions. So, before using anything, check with your editor. You should also be mindful of the type of material you’re using. The opening line of a book may only be ten words but you may still need to seek permissions for it. Likewise, a sentence that represents ‘the heart of the work’, for example, a well-known or memorable sentence or expression, would still require you to seek permission.

Start from scratch if you can

One approach you can take to avoid seeking permissions is to completely rewrite one source text. I would argue that it’s preferable to write a new text or script based on a number of sources, much like a journalist would do. That way, you can be sure the work is original.

A few other things to think about

Some of these tips might sound obvious, but they are all based on real experiences I’ve had as an editor, as well as mistakes I’ve made as a writer.

  1. Photos should match the text. If you write content about a real event or person, the accompanying images and captions should show the real event or person.
  2. If you’re basing content on an image, check with the in-house team that you’ll be able to use the image before you start writing. The image may be expensive to use or difficult to obtain.
  3. Remember that real songs can be expensive to use and can be tricky to obtain permissions for. Avoid basing materials on them unless the in-house team gives the go-ahead.
  4. If you’re writing about a real person, you can’t put words in their mouth. For example, you can’t invent an interview with a real person. If you quote someone, the quote must be accurate.
  5. If you’re talking about a real event or person, you can’t invent facts about them. All the information must be correct.

What do you think?

I know I can’t be alone in having had some permissions gaffes and scrapes. What permissions problems have you had? What advice would you give to writers when dealing with permissions?

Sources and further reading

Lottie Galpin has been working in ELT for just over twenty years. She spent 12 years teaching in Taiwan, China, Austria, Spain and the UK before moving into ELT publishing. She worked in-house for OUP and is now a freelance editor, writer and diversity and inclusion consultant. She is also the founder of the Reflecting Reality Facebook group.

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