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Lyrics and Poetry in Fiction—Copyright, Drawbacks, and Other Problems

February 21, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 26, 2015

I’ve been promising an article on the use of lyrics and poetry in novels for a long time. The topic comes up every time a writer asks how to punctuate or format song lyrics or poetry in their stories.

Typically writers are asking about the use of someone else’s lyrics or poems, not their own. So the first issue a writer has to deal with is that of copyright. And talk of copyrights (in the U.S.) leads to the Fair Use Doctrine.

I am not a lawyer, nor am I an expert on copyright law. My purpose in this article is to remind you that there are laws regarding the use of copyrighted materials and that you should learn something about the subject before you include lyrics or poetry in your stories.

An appropriate place to begin your study of U. S. copyright laws is with the Copyright Office. Chapter One, sections 106 and 107 are especially pertinent.

Information on copyright acts and laws in the United Kingdom can be found at Gov.uk.  Intellectual Property (IP) infringement is the place to start for U.K. rules and laws.

While some of my references to copyright law may be accurate in multiple countries, my focus here is on U.S. law.

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Copyright and Fair Use

Copyright is automatically given to an author when a work is created. The copyright for anything written after January 1, 1978, is valid for the life of the author plus 70 years after his or her death. For works written before that time, the term length of the copyright can vary. See Chapter 3 of the Copyright Act for specifics.

For writers wanting to use the words of another, the point is that the other writers, be they novelists, songwriters, or poets, have the right to control and limit the use of their creative efforts. A novelist cannot simply quote the work of another in his stories without giving thought to copyright as well as attribution.

If a work still has a valid copyright, the copyright holder (usually, although not always the author) has rights regarding who can use all or portions of the copyrighted material. Thus the copyright holder usually has final say about who can use his works, the manner in which they can be used, and the length of use.

Yet the Doctrine of Fair Use, part of the U.S. Copyright Law, allows others to use copyrighted materials for specific purposes, but only under certain conditions. So, for example, reviewers, scholars, and teachers can all use copyrighted materials without infringing the copyright. Still, even these permitted uses are limited.

For writers wanting to quote another writer (from a story, essay, song, poetry, or other copyrighted text), the first step is to check is the copyright. If a work is under copyright protection, the writer should consider asking the copyright holder for permission to quote from the protected work. The problem with this is that obtaining permission can be time consuming. The copyright owner doesn’t have to answer you or may take six months to get back to you.

And he may deny your request when he does get back to you.

And if he grants permission to use his words, he may charge you for that use.

Could you proceed without permission? You could, but that course may open you up to a lawsuit. If you intend to publish through a large publisher, they may help you seek authorization to use copyrighted material. On the other hand, the publisher may ask you to change the text you’re quoting so they don’t have to deal with permissions. They may already know that particular copyright holders do not grant permission to use their protected works.

You could also proceed with your use of copyrighted material, intending to claim allowance under the Fair Use Doctrine if you’re ever challenged. However, a few limitations of Fair Use may result in an outcome unfavorable to you.

Fair Use looks at the use and asks whether it’s intended for a commercial product or for educational use. If you plan to sell books that quote the work of others, that’s commercial use. The claim of Fair Use may not go your way in such circumstances.

Another consideration of specific interest to those who want to quote lyrics and poems is a different section of the Fair Use Doctrine. This second Fair Use determiner looks at the amount of quoted text used in proportion to the copyrighted work as a whole. There’s quite a difference between quoting one 25-word line from a 100,000-word novel or script and quoting twenty-five words from a 100-word poem or a 250-word song.

This is one very strong reason for novelists to not quote from copyrighted songs and poems without permission—your use of lyric or poem is not likely to pass the Fair Use test.

Looked at another way, why should writers get to use the work of another writer for their own gain? If a songwriter or performer has success with a song, why does the novelist have the right to take advantage of the popularity of that other work to advance his or her own work? The short answer is that the novelist has no right to trade on the hard work and popularity of others without obtaining permission and paying compensation. (My opinion, not a legal one.)

A third area Fair Use looks at is the substance of the quoted material. It’s typically not a Fair Use to quote the heart of another work without permission, and especially if doing so affects the market value of the copyrighted work. If your use of quoted material might hurt the sales of the quoted material because it gives away the key components of the source material, it’s likely that a Fair Use defense will not work for you.

As I said, I’m not a lawyer. I tried to take the legalese out of this information, but if you intend to quote from any copyrighted sources, check out the copyright laws. I’m especially concerned with the use of songs and poems in this article because quoting single lines from longer works may not be challenged the same way the use of quotes from shorter works would be. That is, from what I’ve read, even the most conservative observers seem to not worry about quoting a single line from another full-length fiction work. It’s quoting shorter works that can cause problems for the novelist. And I don’t want you to remain unaware that you could face a lawsuit if you don’t acquire the proper permissions because you don’t understand copyright laws.

No matter what you end up doing in terms of getting permission, always include attributions for quoted materials. And don’t try to pass off the words of others as your own; that’s plagiarism. While plagiarism is an issue of ethics rather than the law, it can lead to lawsuits concerning copyrights.

The conclusion? To use material from copyrighted works, get permission and include attributions.

Public Domain

You are, of course, legally free to use works that are in the public domain and for which no one owns the copyright. Still, however, you don’t want to plagiarize. Don’t pass off the work of someone else as your own—include attributions and an acknowledgement of all material not original to you and even material not original to the project. That is, if you’re quoting yourself, including an acknowledgement of the original work.

Note: Ideas cannot be copyrighted; it’s the expression of those ideas that receives copyright protection. So you can’t copyright your idea of a story about the theft and ransom of the International Space Station, but you can copyright the story you write based on that idea.

Book titles also cannot be copyrighted, though you could apply for a trademark for a title.

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A Major Reason to Not Include Actual Lyrics

In addition to questions of copyright, there are other reasons not to use the words of others in your stories. And that, more than rights and fair use, is what I want to address.

If you use existing songs and poetry, typically because you have some strong reaction to the words, you need to know that you can’t control your readers’ responses to that song or poem. Readers might have negative memories or connotations linked to the same song or poem; not everyone will have the same connections that you have. Readers might have memories that lead them 180 degrees from where you want them to go when they read those words in your story.

When you introduce an actual song or poem, you may send readers to other songs, to other places, to different eras—all times and places outside your story. Readers go to their connections to a song, not yours. They are reminded of emotions linked to their memories of the song, not the emotion you want to rouse in them.

Writers often try to induce nostalgia by including song lyrics, but other than your own, you can’t know the emotions and memories linked to a song.

Maybe half your readers hate a song because it was played ad nauseam by a parent or older sibling or used by a political party they disagree with or included in an obnoxious TV commercial or because it had once been “their song” before they broke up with a first love.

Maybe you’re including words from a famous country (or rock or hip hop or whatever) song, and half your readers hate that music genre.

The point is, with someone else’s song and words, you can’t control your readers’ responses. You may unintentionally create a mood opposite to the one you intended to create. Or you may send readers off to reminisce rather than pull them deeper into the story.

The words of another writer will always be outside your fiction. They will always be something other. If you have to include a song or poem, why not write your own lyrics and poetry to keep readers inside the fictional world? And better yet, don’t simply write out a verse and chorus or a stanza of a poem, but have a character make use of a single phrase or line or word that speaks to him.

If you have to refer to a real song or poem, show us a character’s reaction to the words. A bald listing of a verse, with no connection to a character, is a sure way to bring a story’s forward motion to a stop.

Let’s look at an example or two.

You could include a whole verse, unadorned and basic. How about a stanza from “A Visit from St. Nicholas”?

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,
And Mama in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap

 As soon as you include a song verse or poem’s stanza, you’ve identified it as something outside the narrative. Readers will approach it in a way different from the way they approach the story itself. Poems and songs have different cadences; we don’t read them the same way we do narrative and dialogue. Even the way the words sit on the page is different from the rest of the story.

If you include a verse in this manner, the reader has to figure out your purpose—why is this song here now? What does this poem have to do with anything? Which phrase is important? Which word?

You have successfully broken the rhythm, pace, direction, and flow of the narrative—not necessarily a positive accomplishment.

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t work around any problems introduced by including song lyrics or a poem. I am saying that there are ways to better blend a character’s connections to a song or poem than to simply include a block of text from the song or poem.

How To Include Lyrics or Poetry

If you do use a recognizable song or poem, put the words to work for the character and the scene by making the character—and not the reader—respond to the lyrics. If you include the whole stanza or verse, your intention, whether you acknowledge it or not, is to get a response from the reader. But if you instead include the character’s response to a song he hears or a poem he reads, you can reveal character, advance the plot, and influence the reader’s emotions all in the same moment and using the same bit of writing. And this is an outcome you definitely want.

So rather than including the entire first section of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” why not show your character’s reactions to the words he hears or sees?

For this example, Paul is a detective, and he’s in his car.

Paul turned up the radio at the deep voice reciting Clement Moore’s ode to St. Nick. The speaker was in some downtown bar, trying to score tickets to a Christmas show for his kids. All he had to do was get through the poem, without prompts from the very rowdy, possibly drunk, crowd.

Paul shook his head. Once the parents in that crowd heard the latest, that another infant had been abducted right out of her bed, right out of the comfy home of sleeping parents, they might not be so quick to laugh at the idea of a strange man climbing into their houses.

He circled the cul-de-sac and parked, his eye going to the chimney of the house inside the crime-scene tape. No smoke coming out. Too bad that didn’t mean their kidnapper had gotten caught between the bricks.

They hadn’t been that lucky.

The wind whipped through Paul’s coat as he approached the door, mentally preparing to interrogate the grieving parents when he’d rather be locking up a suspect. At the porch he turned to look over the nearby houses. Moore’s words didn’t match the neighborhood scene. The new-fallen-snow bit was right, but there was no moon to light the nightscape. And no sound of approaching reindeer.

The night was black. And the sounds filling that blackness were the cries of devastated parents.

I used something like this second example in a comment here on the blog. I suggested that rather than quote Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” a writer have the character respond to what he was hearing.

I cranked up Lee Greenwood, blasting the song through the house. Then I lifted my glass.

“Yeah, I’m proud too, Lee.”

Or how about this one with its reference to a currently popular pop song—

Kelly lowered the volume and twisted to check out her backside, not wanting to be reminded once again that big butts were all the rage. Not only did she have no bass, but she had no treble to speak of either.

If you include references to songs and poetry in ways such as this, you don’t have to quote the songs and poems and thus wouldn’t have to obtain permission from the copyright holder. (You can include the name of songs and poems, as well as the names of the writers, in your text.) You also don’t stop the forward motion of the story by sticking in words written in a different format, such as a verse in block text. And you weave the pertinent elements from the songs into the fabric of the character’s actions and world. This is an integrated approach that allows the story to remain seamless, immune to cracks and distractions that lead to the real world, the one outside the fictional events.

Of course, if your references are too obscure, you run the chance of sending readers off to figure out what song you were talking about, which is just as bad as sending them off into their own memories. You don’t want readers running to the Internet to look up song references, but neither do you want them wandering off in their minds, traveling through memories of their own making and through other personal associations to a song or poem.

You also wouldn’t want to use this approach too often. No matter how well camouflaged, references to songs and poems still point to the world outside the fictional one. And too much of any device can become both noticeable and annoying.

In some circumstances, tapping into reader experiences can pull readers deeper into a story and create shared connections with characters. But linking to reader experiences could easily pull readers out and away from the story, if even only for a moment. When you’re trying to make connections with the reader, do you want to have him turning away from your story and looking elsewhere? You can’t control whether or not your fictional world and the emotional moment you’re working to create can withstand a comparison with actual events embellished by time and colored by the power of emotions experienced in a real-world setting. You can’t guarantee that readers will want to return to the fictional world after a jaunt to their memories.

Keep readers inside the story world by making your lyrics and poetry connect to the characters and events, not to outside events you have no control over.

Fake Lyric, Fake Poem

One way to keep readers inside your story world is to substitute your own lyrics and poetry for those of someone else.

A poem or lyric written for another purpose and by another person is not the best fit for your story—the words and sentiment do not fit character, setting, tone, rhythm, and story events the same way your own words would.

I typically counsel against including too many clichés for the same reason—clichés and phrases that fit other situations in a general way are not specific enough for your story. Unique and appropriate beat clichéd and common because unique phrases crafted solely for one work—one character, one character’s emotions, one once-in-a-lifetime situation or series of events—actually do fit. They fit all the story elements. They also don’t lead readers to thoughts of other stories that use the same phrases. And they give a story a unique voice that catches the reader’s attention.

Clichés can dull an otherwise fresh story. Borrowed lyrics do the same thing while also encouraging readers to step outside the fictional world and look at their own connections to a song or poem. Or if there is no connection because the reader doesn’t know the song, maybe a lyric draws a reader into a search for the unfamiliar song.

If you included your own lyrics, readers would continue to remain inside the fiction.

If you write your own lyrics and poetry, you won’t be tempted to take advantage of the hard work and reputation and connections of a songwriter or poet who has already proved his words were a success.

A writer often picks a song or poem precisely because someone else has already done the work, creating imagery and tapping at emotions. But for your books, that is your job. Rather than trade on the successes of others, come up with your own words that will be an exact fit for your needs, a fit for characters, emotions, mood, era, action events, rhythm, and even theme.

Yet even if you do include your own lyrics, do consider relating them to and through the characters, as I mentioned earlier. Weave the lyric into the fabric of the fiction. Then they no longer merely sit on top of the story without integration, an addition that refuses to blend, but they become a true part of the story, woven into multiple elements in a way that makes them hard to cut away.

I won’t be surprised to find that some don’t agree with me on some of what I’ve said here, but I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts

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25 Responses to “Lyrics and Poetry in Fiction—Copyright, Drawbacks, and Other Problems”

  1. Benjamin says:

    Concerning what goes on in a reader’s head, this is the most profound article I’ve read in many-a-day. I believe you have your finger on the pulse of writing for the reader’s experience. Thanks for this.

  2. I never realized how quoting songs, poetry, etc., inside one’s own fiction could indirectly cause readers to connect their own experiences to the quoted material and not the story. It explains why I sometimes go off in my own mind and almost forget what I’m reading when I run across quoted material in fiction. Thank you for the reminder! And its wisdom! I’m thinking your words apply to some extent to non-fiction too.

    • Beverly, it’s happened to me as well, suddenly finding myself coming back from thoughts from my own past rather than reading what’s on the page in front of me. But the good news is that there are ways to keep readers involved solely with the events on the page.

      As for nonfiction, I can see what you mean. Though with nonfiction, the writer might want the reader thinking on other events and connections. Having the reader make mental leaps to events from their own lives is one way to build a consensus for the conclusions the writer will ultimately hope to prove. Yet if you’re referring to including just blocks of quotes from other sources, I think you’re exactly right. The writer of nonfiction needs to link to his sources in ways that do more than plop the quoted text on the page. The quoted materials need to be woven into the text in ways that add depth and meaning for the topic.

  3. shannon says:

    Public domain is one of my favorite phrases, and I’ve researched it thoroughly because of the quotes I use as chapter headings. A topic you covered in the past. I only mention the title of a song once as two characters are dancing. For me the song epitomizes where the characters have come from and where they’re going, but I understand your point that others may not feel the same, if they know the song at all.
    Poetry is another matter. It is a major component to how the same two characters come to respect, admire, and eventually love one another. I mention William Blake’s poems, and one of the characters recites Three Things To Remember, a short piece, but again it perfectly encapsulates that moment. The other character’s reaction to hearing her say it has a huge impact on how their story develops. Only one other time does a character recite a poem, it is a long piece so I picked the stanzas that had the punch to tear at the heartstrings and heighten the tension. It is a moment where a character is rising to the occasion, against all odds to save the life of another. Again, the other character’s reaction to her strength and resolve propels their story forward and changes the dynamic between them.
    It is a poem hundreds of years old, and fairly obscure, so I felt safe using it.
    Other than that the same two characters have a battle of wills and wits that plays out with Aristotle quotes. Its a scene I am particularly proud of, and had a lot of fun writing. While many people may not know all the quotes, the conversation comes across clearly. Especially the rising danger to the one character as she begins to get the best of the other.

    • Shannon, I’m all for using whatever works. If a song or poem links characters, try it. Yet keep in mind that the reader is outside looking in. Will readers read all the lines of a poem or song? Do they have to in order to follow along? That is, do the words affect the story? If not, there’s no reason to include lyrics or lines from poems. Keep in mind that lyrics and poems are not part of the story itself and that means you’re introducing something “other.” It can work, but you might be able to accomplish the same thing (or something better) without actually quoting a song or poem.

  4. Shannon says:

    I would love to hear your thoughts. I look forward to every one of your posts. They are very enlightening and helpful.

  5. maya says:

    Thank you so much for these insights. Not just this post but the whole blog are amazing and very helpful. I experienced this when I wrote my first practice novella, chapter titles were either a phrase from a song or inspired by a song. It fitted perfectly and it provided inspiration for me but I agree that someone else already painted that picture. Because project was for learning and fun, I didn’t worry about it, but now I’m writing more seriously, I’m more aware of my sources.

  6. darien says:

    Hi Beth,

    Thanks so much for this. Your suggestion to have the character’s reaction instead of the words is brilliant!!!

    I have a couple specific situations to ask about though. What about quotes from movies, for example, two characters interacting and one recites a movie quote in reaction to the scene: “Get away from her you bitch!” (from Aliens) or “The power of Christ compels you!” (from The Exorcist).

    Also TV show’s, for example: I sat on the couch with the twins watching Marcia Brady cry “Ooo, my nose,” for the millionth time.

    Also, are commercial jingles protected? And, is it possible to paraphrase song lyrics without a direct quote? Would that require permission?

    Lastly, when asking for permission, how much of a manuscript should be submitted, just the section with the reference, or the whole thing with the reference highlighted? Is it appropriate to seek permission before getting published?

    Sorry to ask so much, my manuscript has examples of all the above, my MC has a jukebox in his head . . . it’s not overused, and mostly just titles with credits, but I’m hoping to include up to ten words of lyrics quoted on two or three of them.

    Many, many thanks for all your help and advice!!!

    Darien

  7. Nesdon Booth says:

    I get your railing against trying to assign your own emotional response to a reader rather than creating them, but you never answer the question your article asks, and why I struggled through its surprisingly redundancy.

    I have a traditional song, almost a nursery rhyme, in a story that the characters sing together and that sets up the whole story. None, not one, of your points are relevant to my situation. It was very frustrating and felt pretty patronizing for you to include so much of your own fiction as exemplars without ever acknowledging that there just might be a place where you would want to include poem or song lyrics and just explain the details of formatting them.

  8. Glenn says:

    Brilliant post. I just went back and rewrote a whole section on the NaNoWriMo novel I’m finishing up. Thank you!

  9. Phil Huston says:

    This right here is solid gold.

    Yet keep in mind that the reader is outside looking in.

    While I enjoy the odd reference in modern fiction to literature or music ranging from Robert Parker’s erudite detective Spenser to the Brit’s seemingly endless desire to quote lines from arcane texts before, after and during chapters, it is to me almost the height of creative narcissism.

    Artists always quote their influences directly, indirectly or subconsciously. I am as guilty as anyone. What rings our bells as creators, though, shouldn’t send someone outside of our range of experience looking up the etymology of anunusual word or familiarizing themselves with the Cole Porter catalog or Milton to get the “vibe” of our subsequent text.

    This was the first thing my first editor jumped on, just before my comma splices and lack of scene setting. “People may never have heard that song and they don’t know if those two people are in a car or your grandmother’s attic. Readers first.”

    Thanks for the reminders.

  10. —“What rings our bells as creators, though, shouldn’t send someone outside of our range of experience looking up the etymology of an unusual word or familiarizing themselves with the Cole Porter catalog or Milton to get the “vibe” of our subsequent text.”

    Well put, Phil. As long as the story elements fit the story, all should be well. But when we try to graft on an element that doesn’t fit, we easily run into problems. Those influences in our life will, as you said, mark our work. But they need to be organic to the story, not only something we love or that has moved us.

  11. Hi!
    First of all, thanks for such a great article!
    I’ve found it difficult to get a definitive answer when searching about copyright infringement regarding my intentions so hopefully you can help with this question!

    In my final year at university I’ve been given a task to create a publication project, involving printing and publishing a piece of work. My idea for this is to create work that blends lines of poems with lines from songs, for example, a line of Blake, followed by a line of Elton John (Probably an awful idea but oh well)
    Whilst I know that if I was using the lyrics as part of a novel that they would infringe copyright, can it not be legislated that I’m merely blending the lyrics with other things from the past? I’m aware my questions might be naive and whatnot, but I need to know. Each use of lyrics will be fully credited – for example I may have a poem made from lines of Blake and Elton, which I would title “Blake and Elton” and simple piece the lyrics together, so my thinking is that I’m just copying and pasting the lyrics AND fully acknowledging that they aren’t mine. I might not be putting my idea across very well but would it make a difference if I introduced my poems by saying “This is a blend of Elton and Blake”, rather than just kept it quiet? Thank you for your article, and thank you for your time reading this question! Any help would be appreciated!

    • Daniel, students have some leeway using copyrighted works that others don’t get, so you could probably use lyrics for a classroom project, for example, a project that compares lyrics from songs from 100 years ago to those from songs of today. This would be a project that only the instructor and other students would see and you’d cite all your sources. However, you couldn’t publish such a project in any form without first obtaining permission from the copyright holders. The copyright holders get to say who can use their words, especially when you’re talking using those words in public or in a commercial venture. Even if you didn’t intend to charge money for your project, you’ve used someone else’s words for your project without their permission. Copyright holders have rights and limiting the use of their words is one of those rights.

      You may want to check with one of your instructors and an attorney as well to get as much insight as possible on the issue.

  12. Ginger McGee says:

    The MC in my novel defines her life in song lyrics and creates playlists for specific moments in time. I have included the playlists, since they are an integral part of the plot, that include title, artist, and several lines that are meaningful to the MC, as well as the MC’s reaction to those lines. I’m guessing this is not a valid option for publishing purposes. Thoughts? Suggestions? I’m currently editing the first draft. Any information is appreciated. Peace,
    Ginger

    • Ginger, the artist’s name and the song title can be used, but you really don’t have the right to use the lyrics. It’s like taking the heart of someone else’s work and using it to bolster your own but without the permission of the owner. See if you can get permission if you absolutely have to use lyrics, or try one of the other options, such as creating your own lyrics to perfectly match the tone or mood you need.

  13. Jay says:

    Great article, thanks. Came just looking for legal information on copyright laws, but was pleasantly surprised—and learnt something—by the parts on writing itself.

    I could really do with some help on getting a question answered:

    What if I were to significantly change the lyrics of a song?

    Here’s the original line: “And skipping over the ocean like a stone”

    I would change it to: Tripping over the sea like a stone.

    Would be able to do this without fear of copyright infringement? Does anybody know?

    Thanks.

  14. Jamie says:

    Hey – great article – would you mind emailing me so I can discuss further offline

    Thanks

  15. Glenn says:

    Hi Beth,
    Yours is the most comprehensive article I’ve read on this subject, but I still have a question. For fake lyrics & poems, how to format them? Should they be in italics? Also, because lyrics and poems are separated into stanzas they will squash up against prose paragraphs if the standard manuscript format is adhered to i.e. no line spaces. How do you make fake lyrics & poems stand out as such? Thanks in advance!

    • Glenn, I’m glad you found the info useful.

      A good way to format long sections of lyrics and poetry is to indent on both sides so that the text sits inside the margins of your regular text. This way it stands out so agents and editors recognize what it is. Some people use italics, but you wouldn’t have to do that if you indent.

      You don’t have to do anything else, not for a manuscript. In a manuscript you’re not trying to make the text look the way it will in a book, so the indents should be enough.

      However, you may not want to include long stretches of poems or lyrics. Since those items are so different from your story, the story itself stops when readers have to read long sections of poetry or lyrics. There are allowances, of course. Yet readers come for the fiction, not songs and poems.

      If a character is reciting poetry or lyrics, you should be able to include those as dialogue (again, unless you’re including long sections of either).

      I hope that helps.

  16. Caroline says:

    Great article on a problematic subject. I have a story about Shakespeare and have quoted his poems and from his plays obviously showing that it is Shakespeare speaking and writing the words. I believe his works are no longer protected by copyright but it still makes me unconfortable

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