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I am writing a novel and in it, the characters are using a book cipher based on a collection of classic novels. In this draft, the main characters are given the first, or last, line of the book in order to find the right book. When they find the correct book, I will identify the title of the book and author. The contents, characters, and plots of these book will not be mentioned or used in any way, just the first or last lines.

Am I risking a lawsuit? Some of the books are old enough to be in the public domain, but most are not. My instinct says that I am likely safe, but I am not experienced enough to necessarily act on my instincts.

Thanks for the help.

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    How important is it that they are actual novels? If their in-world meaning has some thematic significance, using fictional books would future-proof your novel from other authors' real world reputations.
    – wetcircuit
    Aug 20, 2022 at 19:20

4 Answers 4

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If you look in the book, there'll normally be contact information on one of the first few pages. If you want to add their book in your story, try starting there.

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You need to read up on Fair Use. I am quoting from:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use

In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In determining (1) [...] The Campbell case also addressed the subfactor mentioned in the quotation above, "whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes." In an earlier case, Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., the Supreme Court had stated that "every commercial use of copyrighted material is presumptively ... unfair." In Campbell, the court clarified that this is not a "hard evidentiary presumption" and that even the tendency that commercial purpose will "weigh against a finding of fair use ... will vary with the context." The Campbell court held that hip-hop group 2 Live Crew's parody of the song "Oh, Pretty Woman" was fair use, even though the parody was sold for profit. Thus, having a commercial purpose does not preclude a use from being found fair, even though it makes it less likely.

I would recommend against it. If the work is under copyright and the first or last line is not generic (meaning, it cannot be found in any other commercial work), then you are violating copyright for a patently commercial purpose, and if you are sued you will probably lose.

Make up fake titles and make up fake lines, or if you don't think you can, stick to the public domain works. In fact you can make that part of your story, all the secret message are from famous books a century old and still available. Suggesting somebody wants to make sure their message can be decoded just about anytime, anywhere.

Don't steal. Your creativity must stand entirely on its own; don't ever try to borrow any great lines from film or literature or even songs unless they are in the public domain.

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In universe, the characters are using this for some sort of code hunt, are they not? If this is a code hunt, is there a mysterious character giving them famous quotes and then going, "okay, now find me the book associated with it?". If that's the case then this is a direct quote.

For example, the characters might say.

"I found this weird note it says insert quote here"

"Oh wow that's so weird, it's a quote from Homer's Odyssey! I wonder if the words help unscramble a code?"

Or alternatively they pick up a piece of paper and read the line for themselves. That's not plagiarism. That's a direct quote or passage the character is reading.

Copyright laws are dreadful though so if you want to quote a book either quote something very old like the Odyssey so there's no fear of copyright, or, to be absolutely certain you can't be sued, make something up on the spot.

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Excellent question. For one thing, keep in mind that anyone can sue anyone else for virtually anything. So no matter what you do, some crazy person can sue you. If it's for something ridiculous, (like suing you for using a quote from a classic) they'll be making a fool of themselves and you'll be fine.

Secondly, it is not considered plagiarism of you give credit. If you use the line 'It was the best of times; it was the worst of times' and pretend it was yours, that is plagiarism. If you credit it to Dickens, however, it is absolutely not plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined by google as "the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own." Giving credit and acknowledging that someone else wrote it means that it's not plagiarism.

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