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Can a yearbook get in trouble for printing famous quotes and lyrics in its advertisement pages?

Question | Copyright & Fair Use
I am on the yearbook committee for my school. We are working to raise money for the yearbook and we want to let parents buy a space in the back of the yearbook to leave an inspirational message for their graduating student. Many parents have bought space, but some of them are using famous song lyrics or quotes from a poem or a book in their messages. I am worried that it might be copyright infringement. Will the yearbook get in trouble for printing these lyrics and quotes?

Stealing Quotes to Say Congrats?

Normally, you just can’t lift quotes without permission from a famous song, an inspirational book, or a speech and plop them in your own book, and sell it for money. The author of the song, book or speech will come after you for copyright infringement! But, if only a portion of the lyrics or speech is chosen and put in a publication that is created by students as part of a high school class, it would likely be educational fair use and you would be ok. 


Educational fair use is part of the fair use exception in copyright law that lets people use creative works for classes, lectures, and other educational stuff, without having to worry about infringing copyrights. 

How do you judge when your use of a work is educational? It’s not always clear if you lift somebody’s work to put in your documentary or a Youtube how-to video, BUT it’s a no-brainer if you are doing it for a high school class. Taking a yearbook class, or just being on a yearbook committee, is teaching you and other students about publication, advertising, and journalism. This whole experience is part of your education. You are getting a grade for your work and the yearbook class is part of the school’s curriculum. So, if the yearbook uses book quotes and song lyrics to help teach students about publishing and advertising, it is likely a fair use of the quotes and lyrics. 

Does it matter how much of the quote is being used?

It matters a lot! One of the things that is most important for fair use is how much of the copyrighted work you are using. For example, you obviously wouldn’t be able to print all 400+ pages of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban into your yearbook without being sued. (Disclaimer: Casting spells won’t keep lawyers away). If you are using just a quote or two, that’s more likely to be a fair use because it will not likely take away from the sales of the book. People are probably not going to buy your yearbook if they want to get whisked away to a world of witchcraft and wizardry. 

How can this be legal? The yearbook makes money when it’s sold to students and their families?

The yearbook is not “making” money. School yearbooks are generally non-profit and all money that comes from advertising is helping the school publish the book. As long as the money is used for educational purposes, it probably isn’t an issue. 

Will an author or songwriter go after us if we print this yearbook with lyrics from their songs or books? 

Not likely. If the yearbook doesn’t affect the sales of the book or song, the author and songwriter probably won’t waste their time. Let’s go back to the Hogwarts example in the previous question. If you were to print all of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in the back of the yearbook, anyone who bought a yearbook would not likely buy the actual Harry Potter book. They would basically have a copy inside of your yearbook. If it’s just a quote from the book, then people who want to read Harry Potter will go out and buy the book instead of buying your yearbook. In short, if you drop a short quote, J.K. Rowling won't sweat it!  

If for some reason you think that it may still be an issue, your best options are either to get permission from the copyright holder or to tell the parents to stop poaching from Harry Potter books, take 10 minutes, and think of something original and creative to say to their beloved graduate. 

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