How Do I Approach an Author About Using Their Content?

Sarah has some ideas to update a book, but it isn't her content. The book isn't in the public domain. What is the best way to approach the author about using this material and modernizing it?

QUESTION: Sarah in Ohio has some ideas to update a book, but it isn’t her content. The book isn’t in the public domain. What is the best way to approach the author about using this material and modernizing it?

ANSWER: You can approach the author and ask for permission to do it. “You obviously haven’t done anything with the material in several years. Your material’s very inspiring to me. I would like your permission to take the material and create a modern-day application to it.”

It may be that you end up licensing that. It might be that they just say, “Yeah, I’m not fooling with it. If you want to take it and can help some people, have at it.” Sometimes, people are pretty laid-back about it. It could be the author doesn’t own the copyright, that their publisher does, so I’m not sure if you’re in violation of a copyright or not. You’d have to ask a copyright attorney to be sure. If you’re not using something word for word, you’re probably not in violation of the copyright. But just to steal the concept from a moral perspective, I would want the author’s permission.

I would just say, “I was inspired by your product—by the book and by the concepts—and I really would like to create a modern-day application of these concepts, and I’d like your permission to do that. How would that best work for you?”

Then let them say that. They may say, “I’d rather you not do that,” or, “Oh, sure. Just go ahead and use it.”

“Well, would you mind sending me a note that you gave me permission to use it?”

Then you may just be free to use it for free. That happens a lot if somebody’s dormant on something—they’re not doing anything with it. Other times, they may say, “Well, let’s work out a licensing arrangement,” where you pay them a small fee per unit that you sell. You can license it from them.

I’ve got some old recordings that I am just very fond of by other speakers, and I’ve been in touch with their estates about the idea of licensing it in my particular case. If I’m able to get enough of those put together, I’m going to make them available to all of you guys because they’re things that mean a lot to me. I’m working on that, but it’s not all together yet. It’s the same kind of thing. I could probably just pluck the recordings off of YouTube or somewhere that they’re lying around and might not be in violation of anything because it’s old, old stuff. But that doesn’t matter to me. I want to make sure that the people that were involved and the families that were involved are blessed by it as well.

If you had permission to use it, it becomes new content in a very real sense because it’s not in the marketplace today. If you had permission to use that content in the marketplace—written permission from the owner of it—and it’s essentially not in the marketplace because it’s a 40-year-old backlisted book, it becomes new to this generation. I would treat it as such. You may be asked and you may want to credit the original work in your speaking and say, “I read this book. It changed my life, and I was so inspired, I got in touch with them.” That could be part of the story even as you’re going to a conference to speak.

It’s always just nice to tip your hat to the people that inspired you.