Copyright Permission

on May 17, 2010 in Misc

Great news! I just received copyright permission to reprint a Monty Python song in The Compass Master!

Monty Python group

And that’s all the excitement you’ll find in this post.

As you can tell by the title, what I’m writing about today isn’t exactly an action packed subject.    But for you writers who, like me, will be publishing your novels yourselves (whether by hard copy or electronically or both), my experience in seeking and obtaining permission to use copyrighted material might come in handy.   Or it might be a somber warning.

In The Compass Master I have a couple of extensive quotations for which I knew I needed copyright permission.  One important clue in my novel involves two stanzas of a Monty Python song; in another chapter I quote several sentences from a non-fiction book by the British scholar Alethea Hayter.   (ANTI-SPOILER ALERT: Because I don’t want to give away red herrings or clues in my thriller, I won’t tell you which song or which book.)


For the Monty Python song, I got on the Internet and searched.  I easily learned who wrote the song — four men share authorship. But various Internet listings variously cited it as belonging to Virgin Records, Kay-Gee-Bee, EMI, or BMI.  I wasn’t sure where to start, so I started emailing and calling.

Over a few weeks I got bounced around from L.A. to Memphis to New York, and along the way some helpful unseen people sent me the names of companies I should contact.  Finally I ended up in the right place: the Hal Leonard Corporation in Milwaukee.

Hal Leonard’s website was easy to use and steered me to the correct application to fill out.  A few emails later, I confirmed that I was dealing with the correct people, sent them the additional info they requested (including the pages of my manuscript in which the song is quoted), mailed them a payment of $100 for the “permission to reprint a lyric excerpt” in The Compass Master, and signed a contract giving me that permission.


What really simplifies things for me as a self-publisher is that the contract provides the exact wording I must use in my book to show that I have copyright permission.

Total time it took to get that permission once I contacted Hal Leonard Corp.?  Less than three weeks.   Bless ‘em for their efficiency.

big ben

As for permission to use quotes from Alethea Hayter’ book…

It’s been like throwing one message after another into a black hole.

The original publisher of the book is Faber and Faber in London.   Their website tells you what info they need from you.   So I emailed off my application… LAST SUMMER.   How far did I get? After three months and prodding on my part, someone emailed a reply stating that Ms. Hayter was now deceased, hence my request had been forwarded to the solicitors for her estate.

A great silence followed.

FINALLY this last February I changed a few details in my permission application and this time mailed a hard copy of the whole package (including a copy of the entire chapter in which the quotes appear) off to Faber and Faber.   My logic was that F&F might pay more attention to a big honkin’ envelope full of papers than they will a measly email.   The result?

It’s been ten weeks of silence.

A few days ago I sent a polite email querying the status of my request.   The result?

Nada. Zip. Silence.

John Cleese

My next move (ARGH!) may just have to be to submit my request through an internet legal firm that specializes in copyright requests.    It’ll be expensive and a pain in the ass, but very often lawyers only respect communications from fellow lawyers.

Anyway, here’s the lesson I’ve learned from these experiences:

If as a writer you need to obtain copyright permission for something, get started as early as you can because it might turn out to be a painfully lengthy process.   And if you need to obtain permission from some snooty publishers or estate solicitors in London… God help you.

Postscript: I recently found out that Faber and Faber was the publisher for some of T.S. Eliot’s poems that I also quote in The Compass Master.   I can’t tell you how happy I am that those poems are now old enough to be in the public domain and I don’t need F&F’s stinkin’ permission to use them.

4 Responses to “Copyright Permission”

  1. Hart says:

    *happy dancing*

    Any book that uses Monty Python quotes HAS to be a good book! It just makes me happy.

    Good luck getting the other permissions!

  2. Helena says:

    Hart — The great thing about a Monty Python song as a clue/red herring is that it adds humor to a serious genre (thriller).

  3. Ben says:

    Holy cow! I never realized how difficult it is to get the authorization for quotations! I will keep that in mind while i’m writing my book, hopefully I can keep quotes to a minimum. Do you know if someone needs permission to use the name of their company oin a book? i.e. “Tom took a drink of Cocal-Cola”. Or is that so generic, it doesn’t need their authorization? I’ve been wondering about that, because if I do need their permission, then I will either be editing a ton, or will be sending a lot of letters.

  4. Helena says:

    Ben — Don’t worry about short quotations or references to products. In fact “product placement” in movies is sought by companies like Coke or Dr. Pepper or whatever; for them it’s free advertisement. But more extensive quotations — several sentences or a paragraph from copyrighted material — requires permission. Also, lyrics to songs, even if just a couple of stanzas, requires permission. But just one line of a song? I think you’re safe.
    And bear in mind that I’m going for self-publishing, which means I have to worry about this stuff myself. If you go through a regular publisher (not the do-it-yourself type), then they’ll have people on staff who routinely take care of permission requests; you won’t have to do a thing. So for now just write your novel anyway you please and only edit for quality, not legalities.