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When writing for any purpose, we often need to call on the words of others to make a point, or expand on an argument. Greater minds than our own have expressed ideas far better than we have and we have learned from them. We quote them in our work to add weight to our own arguments and purposes.

But what is the law on quoting from the work of others? How much is too much? When can we find ourselves falling into that scary abyss of Copyright Infringement?

It can be quite a complex area, legislated in Australia by the Commonwealth Copyright Act 1968.

Using parts of a work without permission

There are instances where you may quote parts of a copyright owner's work without their permission, and these are known as the "fair dealing" exceptions to copyright infringement. These are when using the material for:

"The phrase 'substantial part' has been held to refer to the quality of what is taken rather than the quantity, and courts have refused to prescribe any particular proportion as amounting to a substantial part."

Copyright and the Digital Economy (ALRC Report 122)

In these "fair dealing" situations, you may not use a "substantial part" of someone's work. The Copyright Act states that reproducing 10% of a work is a reasonable amount for fair dealing, but that shouldn't be relied on. There have been court cases resulting in a smaller amount than this, by being an important part of a work, can breach copyright, so any doubt should be assessed by a lawyer who specialises in copyright.

Where quotations or extracts are used without permission under the "fair dealing" exceptions you must attribute the author or copyright owner, by citing their name, title of their work, publisher and year of publication beneath the quotation, in a footnote, or in a reference list.

All other instances require permission to be obtained.

For further information, go to the Australian Copyright Council website.

Look out for my next blog, "Doing right by copyright: Part 2 – Obtaining copyright permission".