This post is based on episode 173 of the ProBlogger podcast.
Are you confident you’re using quotes legally and ethically on your blog?
Quoting other people’s words, whether from books or blog posts, can be a great way to improve the content on your blog. It’s also a great way to serve your readers (which we’ll dig into in a moment) and build relationships with those you’re quoting.
However, using other people’s content inappropriately can severely harm or even destroy your reputation as a blogger. I’ve seen people’s profiles and credibility ripped to shreds because they haven’t done it right.
But don’t let that worry you. It’s easy to get this right. And that’s what we’ll be covering in this post.
(Quick disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and this post isn’t legal advice. If you’re in doubt, seek the advice of a lawyer.)
Should You Use Quotes at All?
If using quotes can pose ethical (if not legal) issues, you might think the simplest solution is to avoid them altogether.
But quotes are really powerful, and you’re missing out if you’ve never used them.
Quoting someone else allows you to:
- Add more credibility to your articles and make your arguments stronger. You’re showing you’re not the only person who thinks in a particular way about your topic.
- Make your posts more interesting and informative for your readers by including insights and thoughts from other people.
- Learn more yourself by actively seeking out other people’s ideas.
- (Potentially) build connections with the people you quote. Sometimes they’ll notice you’ve used their quote and thank you for quoting them.
Why You Need to Use Quotes Correctly
Ethically, you should always give credit to those whose words and ideas you’re using. (You may also have a legal obligation to do so.)
Never use someone else’s words and present them as your own. That’s plagiarism.
While some bloggers do it intentionally, others do it without really knowing what they’re doing.
But whether or not it’s intentional, doing it wrong can really harm your credibility and even create legal issues.
Here’s how to ensure you’re using other people’s words correctly:
#1: Use Quotation Marks
Always put quotation marks around someone else’s words (whether by typing the quotation marks or by using blockquote formatting). That makes it clear they’re not your words.
#2: Name the Author
Name the person you’re quoting, whether they’re someone contemporary (e.g. Mike Stelzner) or someone who’s long gone (e.g. Shakespeare).
#3: Provide a Link Back, Where Possible
If you can, link back to the exact content you took the words from. If they’re from a blog post, link to that blog post. If they’re from a podcast or a YouTube video, link to that.
If you can’t find the exact piece of content, or the quote is from something that doesn’t have a recording (e.g. a live speech ), find the person’s homepage or social media profile and link to that.
Here are a couple of key reasons why I suggest linking to the original piece of content:
- It serves your readers. They can go and look at the context of those words and see what else is said in that blog post/podcast/video.
- It serves the person you’re quoting. Hopefully it will drive some traffic and interest their way, and help them grow their profile and credibility. (This will also help you build your relationship with them.)
How Much Content Can You Quote?
I normally take only one to three sentences from someone else’s article. If I want to use more, I ask permission from the blogger or podcaster first.
The general advice on this is to think about the proportion of the text you’re using. If you’re quoting from a book, it might be fine to quote 250 words (about a page). But if you’re quoting from a 1,000-word blog post, then about 50–70 words would be more appropriate. This is normally considered ‘fair use’, and you don’t have to ask for permission.
Normally I err on the side of quoting less and encouraging readers to read the whole article.
What if You Need to Modify the Quote?
When you’re quoting someone, you may need to add a few words to give readers more context, or take out a few words to shorten the quote.
If you do this, it’s important to be clear about what you’ve modified.
If I’m adding to a quote, I always put what I’ve added in square brackets; if I’m removing something from a quote, I use three dots (with spaces between each one) to show where I’ve omitted text.
Here are a couple of examples (from above):
Adding words for context and clarity:
“If I want to use more [than a few sentences], I ask permission from the blogger or podcaster first.” (Darren Rowse, How to Use Quotes in Your Blog Content Legally and Ethically)
Removing words to make a quote more succinct:
“If you can, link back to the exact content you took the words from. . . . If you can’t find the exact piece of content . . . find the person’s homepage or social media profile and link to that.” (Darren Rowse, How to Use Quotes in Your Blog Content Legally and Ethically)
Tips for Using Other People’s Words and Ideas in Your Blog Posts
#1: Add Your Own Thoughts to a Quote
Don’t just take a quote and put it up as a blog post. While it’s legally and ethically fine (as long as you link it back to the person), it would serve your readers better if you wrote a bit about why you chose that quote.
That could mean an introductory paragraph about why you chose it, and a paragraph or two at the end where you say what you’d add to the quote or how you’d qualify it. You could even tell a story that illustrates the point of the quote.
#2: Give Credit to People for Their Ideas, Not Just Their Quotes
Even if you’re not quoting someone’s exact words, it’s good form (and wise from a legal perspective) to credit them for inspiring what you’ve written.
Back in 200, I watched a video presentation from Chris Brogan, who was doing a lot of thinking back them on blogging and social media. In the video he talked about using his blog as a “home base” and his social media as “outposts” around it, and had a description and a diagram to illustrate this.
I loved his idea, and it gave me the language to explain how I also use social media.
While I’ve never directly quoted Chris, I’ve often used the idea of a “home base” and “outposts” in our posts. When I talk about it – on the blog, on webinars, or in keynotes – I always say, “I got this from Chris Brogan”.
#3: Give Credit to the Source of Your Quotes
Sometimes you find a quote through someone else. For instance, if Chris Brogan blogged about something Mike Stelzner said, I might use Mike’s quote but add that I found it via Chris Brogan. And I’d link to Chris’s post as well as Mike’s.
This isn’t a legal requirement as far as I know. But I think it’s good form, and it helps build credibility. It also adds extra value for your readers because it gives them two other posts to read that offer different contexts and viewpoints.
For lots of different ways to use quotes on your blog (such as putting together lists or creating an expert roundup), check out Ali Luke’s post, The Why, How and When of Using Quotations on Your Blog.
Using Other People’s Images on Your Blog
Using images is trickier than using quotes, because when you use an image you’re using the entire piece of work.
To do this you should either get explicit permission from its creator or choose an image that’s already been licensed for you to use. For instance, it could be licensed with a creative commons license, or you might have purchased it from a stock photography site.
For more about using images legally and ethically, check out my post, How to Find Images for Your Blog That Won’t Get You Sued.
Using Other People’s Videos on Your Blog
If you find a video on YouTube you want to use, check whether there’s an embed code. (The video creator can allow or disallow embedding.) If you can see the embed code, consider it as permission to use the video.
But again, you should always credit the video and never present it as your own in any way.
Whenever you’re using someone else’s ideas or words, make it really clear to your readers they aren’t your ideas or words. It’s an ethical and legal obligation. And it will help you serve your readers well.
When you use quotes on your blog, how do you ensure you use them fairly and give credit to the author or speaker? Let us know in the comments below.
Image credit: MJ S