Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fair Use and Other Potential Pitfalls in Writing Non-Fiction for Children and Adults

On Saturday, June 16, I am conducting a workshop on writing Non-Fiction for Children at the SCBWI Florida Mid-Year Workshop in Orlando.  To that end, I've been posting a series of tips for non-fiction writers to use.

Today, I am discussing Fair Use, an accepted practice for quoting portions of published text  According to The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook, by Lloyd J. Jassin, fair use allows:

researchers, authors, scholars and educators to borrow small portions of a copyrighted work for socially productive purposes without asking permission or paying a fee.

Unfortunately, there are no firm guidelines for "small portions," as it depends on the type and size of the work.  Two hundred words, however, is a good rule of thumb.

To be completely safe, of course, one should seek written permission from the copyright owner.

Another potential pitfall can be what is termed, Model Releases.  Any one using a photo of a person's face, especially children, a release needs to be obtained by the person or guardian.  As a university professor, I stressed this to my  education students in order to keep them safe from litigation.

I hope these tips help in a small way.  At the very least, it may assist one in thinking about avoiding missteps along the way to completion of a marvelous piece of non-fiction!


  1. You're welcome, Susan. Hope you find it useful!

  2. Terrific tips! Even though the pictures of the students on our school website are clear, if someone tries to copy them they get blurry. Very important to obtain permissions!

    Good luck at the conference, you will do terrific! Wish I could be there.

    1. What a wonderful safeguard! I hadn't heard of this technique, and it's so valuable. Thanks for mentioning this and for your comments.

  3. Great advice, Nancy. Thanks for shining some light on this topic. It is something most writers will eventually encounter, particularly in non-fiction work. There are also times when the issue pops up even if the work is fiction which happens to use some real-world information, cites, names, titles, lyrics or other proprietary stuff. As you say, when in doubt, err on the side of caution.

    I have on occasion used brief quotes, appropriately cited but I usually try to avoid using intellectual property in its original form. Most often, such as in the Factoids included in many of my children's books, I research several sources to get a sense of the content, then I rework it into understandable child-level wording. That preserves the essence of the content while, hopefully, not crossing copyright boundaries. Even taking care to not use the original wording, I always cite the sources as references.

    For use of images or music, double check to see if they are in the public domain. If not, track down the source to determine if permissions are required---many websites will have a specific statement about how to obtain permissions for use and even how the sources should be cited. Another interesting quirk is that "royalty free" doesn't necessarily mean without cost. Lots to be aware of....

    1. Thanks, Bill, for your thoughtful and very helpful comments. Lots here, and I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts and advice here!