Requesting Permission to use certain works in an autobiography/memoir?

I'm writing an autobiography/memoir and am including lots of quotes, song lyrics, plots of theatre shows, as well as pictures from other books. I'm completely new to the author world and want to make sure I'm doing everything lawfully.  What are the rules for what you need to request permission to use, and how do you go about getting that permission? I'm including a bibliography for both illustrations/pictures and any work mentioned (theatre shows, CDs, etc.), hoping this will cover any potential copyright issues. I've been looking at some other autobiographies to help me figure it out and they didn't even have a bibliography page. Is that normal?

Thanks in advance,


  • Typically copyright citations can be found on the copyright page, which is the back side of the title page. Usually there will be something along these lines:

     (your book)  (c) 2017 by (your name). All rights reserved.

    "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (c) 1833 by Mother Goose. Used by permission.

    "SomeSongIFound" (c) 2004 by SongWriter. Used by permission.

    And so forth. Now, obviously, if you're using something "by permission" then you have to have obtained permission. You can do this by writing to the permissions department of the publisher. If they cannot directly grant permissions, they can at least point you to the correct place. There may be a fee, often on the order of $100, but as low as free and as high as whatever the traffic will bear.

    If the work is in the public domain, then you do not need permission, but it is recommended to make certain that the author's name and the work (often with publication year) is mentioned, in the text, as a foot note, as an endnote, or perhaps on the copyright page. A bibliography is typical of non-fiction, but is not usually found in autobiographies.

    To make certain it is in the public domain: If the author died more than 70 years ago (US only) then most likely the work is in the public domain, but it pays to check.

    Also, you are permitted to make brief citations for the purposes of critical analysis and some other cases, but this is probably not what you're doing here.

    Example: If you cite the first verse Mary Had a Little Lamb because when you first head it, it moved you deeply -- alternatively, because it was playing on the radio when a significant life event happened -- then that is NOT a fair use for critical analysis. If, on the other hand, you mention it because in the third grade you wrote an essay analyzing symbolism found in the work, then you can possibly make a case for fair use.

    I'm not a lawyer, and I don't even play one on TV. This is not advice: it's just a casual discussion between two people on a forum. Consult competent legal advisers if necessary.
  • Papi_SoñolientoPapi_Soñoliento Southern Escarpment Hill Country Teacher
    As Cliff said, me not being a lawyer, consult one as this is simply for the sake of discussion.

    Regarding pictures, check to see if free to use and if not, seek permission. In either case attributing the source would be a good idea.

    Song lyrics, check with the copyright owner because as stated, the fee varies. Attribution again, a good thing.

    The one thing you want to avoid is being on the defendant-side in court for copyright violations. When it comes to intellectual property rights always seek permission rather than beg forgiveness because forgiveness can cost a lot more money than permission.
  • Not a lawyer, either, but I second what the others have said. 

    There is a lot of very good advice on the US Copyright Office website:
    Black Cat Studios
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