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Can I have a fantasy character make a quote from a real life figure? For example, can I have a villain make a statement spoken by let's say, Adolf Hitler?

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    What do you mean by can you? Morally? Legally? Credibly?
    – user16226
    May 7 '17 at 16:19
  • Legally. The quote(s) would be familiar with enough to be recognized, indirectly linking the character to the real-life figure.
    – Oahron
    May 7 '17 at 16:29
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    Then it is a matter of copyright and fair use, both of which you should read up on to be sure. But you will be fine quoting Hitler.
    – user16226
    May 7 '17 at 16:38
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    @MarkBaker It's safe to quote Hitler now, but two years ago, it would have been a German copyright violation to use material from Mein Kampf. War or not, dictator or not, German copyright law protected the book until 70 years after the death of its author. Proof: bbc.com/news/world-europe-35209185
    – user23046
    May 7 '17 at 21:16
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    Yes, but it has expired. And it is hard to imagine a use that that would not fall under fair use doctrine, unless you are cribbing him to write your own fascist manifesto, Even then, it is hard to imagine who would sue.
    – user16226
    May 8 '17 at 14:39
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I would not do that, in general. For example, see this article:

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-mlk-family-20150119-story.html

The point is that not only do the originators often sue, the copyright holder may be heirs, who like to sue. It is a matter of powerful them versus little you.

And, as I noted in a comment above, the copyright for Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf was still active (in Germany) until 2015, 70 years after its author's death. I have no idea who in Germany retained the copyright (thanks to comments below: Bavaria did).

So, couldn't you just write something else?

To my knowledge, the only possible exception, at least in the USA, is that the on-duty actions of government employees are public record. Thus, for example, photos of wildlife taken in an official capacity by the wildlife service can be freely used (so I am told; I am not an authority). Presumably the same applies to statements made in an official capacity by politicians; but it might not apply to campaign statements, which are not made in an official capacity.

Edit: Now to be more helpful...

Many books have one or more "epigraphs." You can look that up, with many examples, in places such as Wikipedia and elsewhere. An epigraph is a quote from something else (the quote may also be fictional). Although some famous books used epigraphs from contemporary (copyrighted) sources, there is no right to do that: It would have been with written permission from the copyright holder, which a small, unknown author is unlikely to get. But you can use epigraphs from Shakespeare, the Bible, Nineteenth-Century writers, and even some from the early Twentieth Century.

You can also include a quotation in the form of speech, thus:

"Ya, know, we had to read some Plato for the freaking Lit class. Like I care. But the guy had a few good points."

"If you say so. He's, like, old. Dead, too, maybe."

"Seriously. But for instance, here's what Plato had to say about (some topic). He says, '[now you insert a direct quotation from Plato.]' "

That's just the concept. Real writing would require more delicacy, or it risks sounding preachy. A better approach would be to have the character paraphrase Plato, maybe even misunderstand, using contemporary natural language. That would not only tell the reader something about Plato, it would give us insight into how the character thinks.

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  • Iirc the German state held the copyright, and used it to ensure that no copies of mein kampf were published in Germany.
    – evilsoup
    May 8 '17 at 1:08
  • The federal state of Bavaria held the copyright.. But Hitler published Mein Kampf very early in his political career. Many other works by him might still have copyright.
    – Philipp
    May 8 '17 at 13:40
  • @evilsoup Indeed. When I was young (years ago!) we were told that it was "illegal" to publish MK in Germany. Actually, there was no law against it. Rather, the copyright holder wouldn't allow it. And, as you informed us, that happened to be the government (Bavaria, thanks Philipp). Not sure how the government acquired copyright, whether by a specific law, or in the normal course of the deceased having no heirs.
    – user23046
    May 8 '17 at 13:42
  • @Philipp I believe that German copyright expires 70 years after death of author. Not sure, but believe so. That would be 2015 for anything Hitler wrote or said.
    – user23046
    May 8 '17 at 13:44
  • Quoting or paraphrasing one or two lines from other works is perfectly fine and all kinds of media do it all the time. Its when you start lifting whole sections wholesale from other works that you might hit legal problems.
    – GordonM
    May 12 '17 at 8:30
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Can I have a fantasy character make a quote from a real life figure?

Leaving aside the legal aspect of it, why in a (secondary) world would you want to do that?

Joe Abercrombie often pre-pends his book parts with quotes from real-life politicians and philosophers (even the titles of The First Law trilogy are partial quotes from Homer, Heine, and Louis XIV). I do enjoy his stories, but I feel extremely uncomfortable every time I see the direct quotations with the proper attribution to their authors, for they immediately kick me out of the world he is building.

So, couldn't you just write something else?

What @RobtA said...

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  • I want there to be a very connecting fit between my character and the real-world figure that he is supposed to represent--- be somewhat of a manifestation of him. I recently contacted my former editor about it and he said "often you should be cautious, but with this scenario, the quote is fitting for your manuscript." The legal aspect was my main concern even though I assumed the artistic nature of the quote would be easily understood.
    – Oahron
    May 9 '17 at 0:10
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Of course you can. It comes under "fair use". Huge chunks of modern dialogue are based on samples. You will use expressions that you've no idea of their origin.

Notwithstanding that a huge proportions of modern language originate from Shakespeare hundreds of quotes are unoriginal and re-quoted regularly.

"Now I am become death . . ."

"Float like a butterfly . . ."

"Ask not what your country can do for you . . ."

"I have a dream . . ."

"It's one small step for me . . ."

Even advertising slogans fall into common usage.

"Just say no."

"I've fallen and I can't get up."

"Have a Coke have a smile (and STFU).

Of course if you dump 27 pages of somebody's speech into your story the copyright holder may take issue.

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At least in US, the answer is - "Yes you can, but prepare to get sued"

The biggest question is whether quoting falls under "Fair use" concept. Generally, you are not protected if you are using other's words in your own work of fiction. However, if you are using only well-publicized phrases, a chance to get sued is really, really low.

https://janefriedman.com/the-fair-use-doctrine/

You should also consider how this quoting can affect your story. If a character from fictional world starts reciting real life figures, reader would immediately starts wondering about connections between the worlds. And you better have a good explanation for it.

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