by Barbara Florio Graham

NOTE: This article was written in 2002 for SCRIBE, the newsletter for newsletter editors.
It has since been reprinted (with permission!) in many other newsletters.
 If you want to use it in your newsletter, please e-mail BFG at SimonTeakettle.com to request permission. 

It's happened to most of us at one time or another.  We read an article that we would like to use at a workshop or reproduce in an organization's newsletter and hesitate to paraphrase it because the wording is so perfect as is.  We figure we're respecting the author's copyright by including the writer's name and the publication, and anyway, we're just printing it in a non-profit's newsletter or using it as a workshop tool, it can't be that big of a deal.

Wrong, very wrong.  The copyright laws in both the US and Canada are quite specific about reproducing someone else's work, which includes jokes, cartoons, drawings and logos as well as articles and book excerpts.

You can read the laws yourself, if you wish, but there are a couple of easy rules which will keep you out of trouble:

1. Always ask permission if there is a way to contact the publication and/or the author.

2. Never use an entire article (including a joke) or a paragraph from a longer article that sums up the major point(s) without obtaining permission.

3. Never use any kind of art, including cartoons, drawings, comic strips, or logos without permission.  Permission is seldom granted for these, as many are trademarked and highly protected.

4. Just because something is on the Internet without an author's name attached doesn't mean it's "free" for you to reproduce.  You may forward it on to your friends, but when you "publish" it, even in a  non-profit organization's newsletter, you may be infringing someone's copyright.  Someone wrote that material in the first place, and along the way, his or her name was dropped, either intentionally or inadvertently.  But that creation still belongs to the creator.

5. Copyright is automatic, and does not have to be registered in either Canada or the US.  As soon as anyone creates anything (even a child's drawing posted on mom's refrigerator), that work is protected by copyright law.

6. Using a brief quotation from a longer article is usually fine, as long as you credit the author and the publication.  But the law states that you must not reproduce the "essence" of the work, so a few lines of poetry or a key sentence in a long article may constitute infringement.

7. Song lyrics are protected by several organizations that monitor their use carefully.  You can get into big trouble by quoting a song lyric without permission!

8. Paraphrasing is almost always acceptable, because the laws pertaining to copyright protect the actual wording, not the ideas.  This is the best route, which should include your crediting the author you paraphrased since you're using his or her ideas.  But you don't need permission. 

An example to demonstrate the proper use of copyrighted material would be a paraphrase of my point #7, which might read:  "In an article on copyright issues for Bound and Lettered, author Barbara Florio Graham points out that song lyrics are among the most highly protected types of writing."

9. There is one important exception in the copyright law, which is that brief quotations or excerpts can be used in book reviews without violating the author's copyright.

10. None of these rules apply to private correspondence or e-mail between individuals or among a small group of friends or colleagues.  But even e-mail is protected under copyright legislation.

This has come up a few times on the ListServe of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, where one member wanted to "borrow" a clever description written by another.  "Can I use this in my novel?" asked a member in Ontario.  The answer was, "No.  I'm using it in mine!"

© Barbara Florio Graham