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Many times I come across phrases or single sentences (never longer) on the internet in the form of YouTube comments and the like which resonant with me. Often I am inspired to use these in my writing. As a writer, is it 'allowed' to really consider this my own work? I would give credit when due, but adding footnotes in fiction crediting a YouTube account seems a bit odd.

There is also the question of song lyrics. If I adapt a single line into from a lyric into my writing, should I cite it? If I have a dialogue sequence using say four short sentences of lyrics, should I cite it?

I am a new writer and I am still trying to understand the boundary between "borrowing" and "stealing". People say that great writers steal; I am aware that part of being a good writer is recognizing good writing. Still, I feel unsure about incoporating someone else's words into my work and calling it my own.

Please note that I am NOT talking about anything longer than a sentence.

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  • "Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright." -- Aaron Sorkin – Thom Apr 27 '16 at 11:23
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There are three issues here: copyright, trademark, and plagiarism.

Copyright law explicitly says that you can't claim a copyright to a phrase or slogan. If what you have in mind is some clever turn of phrase or witty line, there's no legal barrier to using it.

Quoting classic phrase is generally not considerred plagiarism, as long as you don't imply that the idea is original to you. Lots of writers include phrases from Shakespeare, the Bible, and other well-known sources, old and new. If it's an old book, this is often considered educated and sophisticated. If it's a new book (or song or movie or whatever), it's considered trendy.

Like, people often say things like, "After my company lost that big contract, I could see the handwriting on the wall", without mentioning that "the handwriting on the wall" comes from the Bible. Or referring to a couple facing challenges as "star-crossed lovers" without citing Shakespeare. Etc. It's perfectly fair and legitimate.

I'd avoid using a borrowed phrase in a way that implies that you made it up. Anyone who has seen the original will think less of you. But just using it in the proper context is fine. If I'm quoting a phrase or sentence in a way that could be taken to imply I made it up, I'll often toss in a disclaimer like, "Like they say ..." or "As the old saying goes ..." or "I once read ...". Or if I want to be slightly more formal, give a casual citation, like, "Winston Churchill once said ...".

Also note that plagirism is not a crime, but an academic violation. You can't be sued or fined for plagiarism. If you plagiarize in an academic environment, you may lose your job or be publicly humiliated, but you won't go to jail. Plagiarism does not really apply to fiction.

Trademark: A company will pretty much always have a trademark to their brand name and may have a trademark to an advertising slogan. That doesn't stop you from using the word or phrase, but it limits how you can use it. Like the CocaCola company pretty regularly sues people for using "coke" as a generic word for any brand of cola. Sometimes it comes down to the capitalization: If you say in your book, "Fred ordered a sandwich and a Coke at the restaurant", CocaCola will smile happily at the free advertising. But say "... and a coke ..." and if they see it, they'll sue you, because now you're using their trademarked name as a generic word. Briefly, if you use a trademarked name to refer to the company owning the trademark or to the appropriate product, there should be no problem. The problem is if you try to use somebody else's trademark to refer to something other than their product.

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In fiction, pretty much everything is allowed legally-wise, including using trademarked catchphrases. If you plan to say something really bad about a famous company, you might wanna cover your posterior by including a disclaimer in the front that it's a work of fiction.

EDIT: I'm talking within the body of the text. You can't use a trademark phrase as a book cover, promotional material, things like that. I hope it's obvious.

You're definitely allowed, legally, to use something a YouTuber said in a comment.

Again, in fiction you can borrow lyrics from other people. What you can't do is write a song and take other people's lyrics. But if, for instance, you write a scene with a character listening to music and then you mention a couple of lyrics and how he liked them, that's fine.

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  • Would the disclaimer actually protect you from a defamation lawsuit if you say a famous company did something illegal? – Cascabel May 31 '16 at 19:37
  • People and companies sue each other for every stupid reason imaginable. The definition of libel involves something presented as fact. Therefore, a disclaimer would give you (or your defending lawyer) a very good foundation. Would that be enough? Who knows. It's a matter of a) how important it is to your book to include such plots; b) realistically, how many people will read your book; c) how determined are you to protect your rights. In other words, both ethically and - to the best of my understanding - legally, a disclaimer covers you. Is it enough? Can't say... – user16555 Jun 1 '16 at 5:13
  • Hmmn...I getting kind of a different interpretation here: law.stackexchange.com/questions/9624/libel-of-website – Cascabel Jun 1 '16 at 17:28
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A friend once said: "Every beautiful thought we consider ours."

At the age of 13, I used quotations in my writing so often, it felt like I didn't have a single thought of my own.

They called me "the walking sutra"...

As much as I revere the talent of other writers, I have to say I have outgrown this practice big time!

Whenever I try to steal or borrow the thought of another - be it a thought I like very much - it now looks to me peculiar, especially in contrast with my own writing. The good flow of words is breaking. Your style is suffering. What you can do instead is borrow the idea and dress it in your own words.

Picasso said: Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.

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