Do you need permission for epigraphs?

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find info to help other writers. Today I talk about permission for epigraphs…

Last Monday I wrote about the need to check the source of quotes and epigraphs— those quotes from famous people set at the beginning of a book or chapter, used to suggest its theme.

But today I’m going to be talking about the need to get permission to use those epigraphs.

Many writers seem to think that epigraphs are at their beck and call and they can therefore use them, almost willy nilly, with no need to seek permission. This is not true.

At best, epigraphs represent a grey area of the law, somewhat protected under the category of “fair use.” But there are some important exceptions:

If the quoted material is protected by copyright, then the writer may need to obtain permission from the copyright holder. Note that copyrights often extend well beyond the death of the individual.

As well, some publishers or literary journals may have their own policies regarding the use of epigraphs or other forms of quotation. In these cases, the writer should consult with the publisher or editor to ensure that their use of an epigraph complies with their guidelines. See, for example, the publications guide for Rowman and Littlefield. It states [emphasis mine]:

“Using quotations (fiction or non-fiction) for epigraphs is never fair use and always requires permission, no matter the length of the quotation. Some copyright holders of fiction are extremely vigilant about reproduction of their works.”

If you wish to use epigraphs, be careful, especially if you’re a self-publisher and don’t have the budget to have a lawyer review your work.

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