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I have characters in my novels that quote the Bible and a couple lines of old nursery rhymes. Do I need to obtain permission in order to use these quotes in my books? What about quoting a popular line from a Shakespeare book? (Self-publishing from the USA)

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There are three issues here:

  1. Copyright is for a finite amount of time, basically life of the author plus 70 years, or if the copyright is owned by an organization rather than a person, or if the author is anonymous, for 95 years from date of publication.

  2. A translation has a separate copyright from the original work, with the clock starting from when the translation was published, not the original work.

  3. Under the "fair use doctrine", you can quote short excerpts from copyrighted works without getting permission.

So if you want to quote the original Hebrew text of Genesis, the copyright on that ran out about 1300 years ago. That's no problem.

If you want to quote the King James Version, that was published in 1611, so the copyright on that ran out 400 years ago. Again, no problem.

More recent translations still have copyright protection. For example the New International Version was published in 1978, so the copyright on that is good until 2073. New King James (Jimmy 2) was published in 1982. Etc.

Many Bible publishers have policies about what they consider "fair use" that they will not challenge. If you stay within these limits, you should be 100% safe. For example, in the front of my Hohlman Bible it says that you can copy "up to and inclusive of 250 verses ... provided that the verses quoted do not account for more than 20 percent of the work in which they are quoted, and provided that a complete book of the Bible is not quoted". There are similar statements in the front of the New International and the New King James, probably many other translations.

Shakespeare died in 1616, so likewise, copyright on anything he wrote is long expired.

For your nursery rhymes, check the publican date. If it's before 1923, the copyright has expired. Books written before 1970-something had shorter copyrights, so if you're looking at something on the borderline, you need to get into the details of the rules. Anything after 1970 is still under copyright unless the author has explicitly released it to public domain, or a few other special cases.

Under "fair use", you can quote a line or two from a poem or a song even if it is still protected by copyright. But don't quote the whole thing, or a substantial portion of it.

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The "Bible" is a translation of a collection of ancient documents. If the translation is older than seventy years, as for example in the King James Version, copyright for it has expired and you may republish it without asking for permission (except in the UK). If on the other hand the translation is recent, as for example the New International Version, copyright is held by the author and/or publisher of the translation, and you have to ask for permission to republish that book. The same goes for Shakespeare. A recent edition of his works (with certain decisions made as to what the exact text of his plays is) will be under copyright, while older editions are copyright free.

Nursery rhymes and other elements of oral tradition often do not have a known author, but if you want to use something like a fairy tale, you might want to do some research to make sure you are not using a copyrighted version of it.

You may always cite any other work in a scholarly publication without asking for permission, independent of the copyright status of that work.

In fiction, if you have a character who hums a line from a Justin Bieber song, or a parent who reads a passage from Harry Potter to their children, you do not have to ask for permission, as long as the citation is brief and meaningful within your narrative. If it is unnecessary for your story, it might be more appropriate - both legally and from a storytelling perspective – to only mention that the character reads or sings, without citing the actual text. If the citation is not brief, the citation must be essential, as for example when your characters discuss a passage from a book or perform a play.

In all cases that go beyond a sentence or two I would consult a lawyer and probably ask the copyright holder for permission.

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I Am Not A Lawyer. Depends on where you're publishing. Laws vary with region. The Bible you typically do not need permission to quote. It is a historical-cultural document in the public domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain). It is not copyrighted. The same is usually true of nursery rhymes. The subject of when copyright expires and why as well as when something enters the "public domain" and why is a contentious subject which varies with the region, etc.

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It depends which translation of the Bible you quote from.

If you quote from the King James Version (KJV), you're unlikely to encounter any problems, as the translation was completed in 1611. It is also the most well know version of the Bible in English.

The situation is different for modern translations, as different publishers will have different policies. For example, the Bible Society gives details of the situation for two modern translations - the Good News Bible (GNB) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV) - on their web site. Similarly, Harper Collins provide details on how to get permission to quote a range of translations, including the New King James Version (NKJV), New Century Version (NCV), International Children’s Bible (ICB), Expanded Bible, and The Voice, as well as the New International Version (NIV), New International Reader’s Version (NIrV), and Amplified Bible translations.

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