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Ask Author Law

Is it OK to use an Amazon reader review in a blurb?

Q: I belong to an online discussion group for independent authors who publish their own novels. Right now there is a discussion going on about whether it is a copyright violation to use an Amazon reader review in a blurb for another book by the same author inserted in the back matter at the end of the book. Some people say that quoting the reader review is fair use and others say it’s not. Someone also pointed out that it might be a violation of Federal Trade Commission rules. What’s the right answer?

A: This isn’t really a copyright issue. The most important legal question is the reviewer’s right of publicity. Copyright is secondary at best.

The right of publicity is the right of an individual to control the commercial use of his or her name, image, and reputation. It is a violation of the right of publicity to use a person’s name, image, or reputation for commercial purposes without consent. Using a person in an advertisement, product endorsement, or on commercial goods without specific permission is a clear and actionable violation of his or her right of publicity.

In the case of a book the right answer to your question relies on an important distinction in the nature of the use -- whether it is editorial or commercial. Books are editorial in nature and therefore exempt from most right of publicity concerns. Editorial use is not commercial use, even if a writer or publication earns money in the editorial process.

Beyonce provides a classic example. The first amendment protects an author’s right to write about her in such editorial works as novels, non-fiction books, news stories, and articles. Such use of a person’s name or image does not violate her right to publicity. It would be fine, for example, to have a character in a novel attend a Beyonce concert or profess an opinion about Beyonce in dialogue. However, Beyonce’s right of publicity prohibits the use her name in advertising, endorsements, or other commercial uses.

The right question to be asking in this case is whether the use of the Amazon reader review is editorial or commercial. The book itself is definitely editorial, but using the reader review in the back matter of one book to promote the author’s other books constitutes, in my opinion, an advertisement. Therefore, it’s essential to have the consent of any individuals used in promotions, ads, and blurbs. Further, that consent should be in writing. It is definitely not OK to copy a reader review off Amazon and paste it into the back matter – or to use it for promotional purposes anywhere else.

Questions of copyright arise, if at all, in cases of posting anonymous reviews or excerpts from long reviews. Such posts without consent would infringe the reviewer’s copyright unless there is a legitimate fair use defense. Fair use analysis is complex and lawyers can disagree, but I don’t think such use would be fair under most circumstances.  Read More 

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Quoting from an actual letter

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: Could you please give me an opinion on what is or is not plagiarism in fiction. For example, is it plagiarism to rewrite a letter in a fictionalized biography, so that the sense is the same as the original, but with very different wording, with original material added by the writer? In other words, how close does the prose have to be to fit the definition? Do you need permission in such a case, or is it enough simply to give credit?

A: You asked about plagiarism, but I’m also going to discuss infringement. All infringement is plagiarism, but all plagiarism is not necessarily infringement. Plagiarism is an academic concept regarding the failure to attribute the source of information or by misleading the reader as to the source. Infringement is the violation of a copyright. In cases of infringement, the issue is illegal copying, not attribution. You may be able to avoid charges of plagiarism by giving credit, but you need permission to use copyrighted work, except for very short quotes that constitute fair use. The situation you have described has the potential for both plagiarism and infringement.

There is no copyright protection for facts, so you’re free to fictionalize by inventing things based on the facts. The writer of a letter (published or unpublished) owns a copyright interest in the text of a letter, so you’re not free to make whatever use you wish of this other person’s work. The same legal guidelines would apply to quoting someone else’s copyrighted work in fiction as in nonfiction. Short quotes might be considered fair use, but I wouldn’t count on that.

Probably the safest way to handle this situation would be to paraphrase the actual letter and use indirect quotations. “I will love you until the end of my days and beyond,” a direct quote, could be handled like this: Mary expressed her feelings in a passionate letter to John, saying that she would love him until she dies. Even when paraphrasing, it is important to change the actual words enough to avoid repeating distinctive phrases.

I would not advise making up a fictional letter and using direct quotes from it. That strikes me as moving a step beyond making up fictional dialogue. Rewriting something does not necessarily protect you from charges of plagiarism or infringement. Such revision would certainly be considered improper by academic standards and I’m not sure how you would handle quoting from a fabricated letter without misleading the reader. Basing a fictional letter on an actual letter could also be copyright infringement, even when you change the words. So, for all these reasons, I would stick to paraphrasing an actual letter by describing its existence and the gist of its contents. If you must use direct quotes, make them short and quote from the actual letter, not a fictionalized version.  Read More 
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