In the fiction novel I’m writing, the MC often searches a dictionary for the definition of a certain word, then recites the result in narration or in dialogue. For example,

I took out my phone. He shuffled closer and we squinted at my screen in the dark. “Attraction. One: the action or power of evoking interest in or liking for something or someone.”

“Not helpful. Next.”

“Two: a quality or feature that evokes interest, liking, or desire.”

“Desire!” he announced, triumphant. “Now we’re getting somewhere!"

This may be a silly question, but if I had lifted these definitions directly from a certain dictionary, say Merriam-Webster or Collins, or Google dictionary in this case, is there any problem if I don’t have permission/quote the source as well?

1 Answer 1


Reference works are generally under copyright, like any other piece of writing, and should be cited appropriately. If this is fiction, it is typically not done in the text, but in a note at the beginning or end of the book. You'll also want to make sure you either have permission, or are following "fair use" guidelines.

However, you can get around these requirements by making up your own, official sounding definitions. Just make sure they don't too closely mirror those from a real source.

  • 2
    Of course, if OP makes up their own definitions, then those are protected by copyright under the same terms as the rest of their work. That makes me wonder if it's a copyright violation if two people, unbeknownst to one another, come up with the same definitions of their own...
    – user
    Feb 20, 2018 at 18:00

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