Citation - How to do it right with texts and images

How do you quote correctly and avoid copyright infringement? There are a few rules you should know. We also look at the legally correct use of photos and illustrations, which are referred to as image citations in case law. Here's how to stay out of legal trouble.

What can you quote?

Proper citation is something every author should take to heart in their book. Many authors want to include a quotation in one or more places in their book, for example, from another author's book, from a newspaper interview, a public speech by a famous person, etc. This is especially common in non-fiction and technical books. But quotes can also occur in novels, for example if you as the author quote a line from a piece of music in the novel's plot.

What does cite mean?

Quoting refers to the literal reproduction of a statement from a published and often well-known text. A distinction must be made between literal, i.e. direct, and non-literal, i.e. indirect, quotations.

If you quote verbatim, you take a text passage exactly from the quoted book with all orthographic features (bold, italics, etc.). The literal quotation is marked with quotation marks at the beginning and at the end as well as the corresponding source reference.

An example: "Copyright arises simply from the fact that you write texts that have a certain degree of individuality." (Law for Self-Publishers and Authors, René Jorde, tredition 2018, p. 33).

Non-literal quotations, also called paraphrases, are content from another text that you reproduce in your own words. Such paraphrases are often found in scientific papers and are usually marked with a "cf. (comparisons) as well as the respective source reference. In addition to text, it is also possible to use passages of music or images as quotations; these are then referred to as music or image quotations.

What are the legal requirements for a citation?

As already mentioned in our comments on the Copyright mentioned, the right to quote is regulated by copyright law. Strictly speaking, the right to quote is an example of a so-called copyright barrier. This refers to provisions of the legislator which - as the term suggests - restrict copyright in certain respects. From a legal point of view, the author can be expected to quote from his text under certain conditions.

In Germany, Section 51 of the Copyright Act (UrhG) applies to quotations. Put simply, this paragraph allows the reproduction and distribution of "a published work for the purpose of quotation, provided that the use is justified in its extent by the particular purpose." The law distinguishes between

  • Large quotations (i.e. large parts of a work or an entire work, e.g. a poem),
  • Small quotations, i.e. an excerpt from a work
  • and musical quotations, i.e. passages from a piece of music.

What is the citation purpose?

The little word "purpose" is very important in Section 51 UrhG: The purpose of the quotation means that it may only be quoted if the quotation serves to substantiate or discuss one's own content or to deal critically with the quotation. In legal terms, this is referred to as the "evidential function" of the quotation. It is therefore not legally permissible to use a quotation for the mere purpose of informing the general public or for embellishment. Caution is really needed here. To put it very clearly once again: Section 51 of the UrhG is not a carte blanche to quote other works at will with reference to the source. If the purpose of the citation is not met, you are committing copyright infringement. So if you quote from another book in your non-fiction book, just to feed your own book with additional content without much effort, this is illegal. You may only quote the author in question if you can use it to substantiate or counter your own statements.

Quoting from music

You should also be careful if, for example, you mention lines from a piece of music in your novel to lighten up a scene - at that moment you are merely embellishing your book with the chorus. Even if the quoted lines from the song are still so short and you name the author of the piece of music, this can have legal consequences for you. So as soon as you want to include passages from other people's texts, complete lyrics, music or film quotations in your book, you should always keep the important "proof function" in mind.

Special features of picture citations

With a few exceptions, almost every book thrives on impressive photos or illustrations that illustrate, symbolize, or visually express the writing in some way. A photo on the cover, in particular, should serve to draw potential readers to one's book. However, just like literal quotations, photos (= picture quotations) are also protected by copyright.

It should be expressly pointed out at this point that the right of citation for images is far more complex than for text citations. The reason for this is as follows: if you, as the author, use a photo in your book that you did not create yourself, you automatically adopt the entire work of the respective photographer, whereas with texts it is possible to quote only individual words or sentences as an excerpt of the respective work. From a purely legal point of view, therefore, the author of the image quotation is more "burdened", since his complete work is taken over.

Never use photos without consent

Since photos are protected by copyright just like text quotations, you need a - preferably written - consent, also called a license, to use the desired photos in your book. This means: clarify with the photographer the necessary rights of use for the photo in your book.

Often, especially when it comes to symbolic cover images (sunset, sea or mountain panorama, objects of any kind, etc.) the use of photos from image databases such as iStockphoto or shutterstock on. But be careful: pay close attention to the respective terms of use and licensing rights that are indicated with the respective photo and read the license and terms and conditions of the photo database carefully. It is also recommended that you document the process of downloading the photo, for example with a screenshot. This is especially recommended if you have downloaded a free photo from a database. The photo databases do not always clarify whether the person who made the photo available to the database is really the author or entitled to do so. If you document all your own processes accordingly and adhere to the terms of use, you are on the safe side (see "Recht für Selbstverleger und Autoren", René Jorde, tredition, p. 102f.).

Do not change photos

It is also very important that you do not alter a picture quotation, i.e. the picture you use in your book. A normal reduction in size is not problematic, but a cropping or a change in colour is. This is not permissible within the framework of citation law. If you absolutely want to change the image for stylistic reasons, you must clarify this with the photographer and obtain permission for this.

Own photos

You are the author of photos that you have taken yourself - just as you are the author of your own book. However, you may infringe the rights of third parties if you have photographed people. It is therefore very important that you obtain the permission of the persons depicted to publish the photo in your book.

However, the legislator grants a few exceptions here, which allow a photo to be published without the consent of the person depicted, for example photos of large public events where individuals are not the focus of attention, or passers-by in pictures of buildings, monuments, etc. The law does not allow this.

You should also be careful if you have photographed an object that may itself be protected by copyright, such as a painting. In this case, you should clarify the legal situation with the respective museum/owner etc. (cf. "Recht für Selbstverleger und Autoren", René Jorde, tredition, p. 104). By the way: regardless of whether you use photos from image databases or your own photos, you are welcome to integrate them for the cover illustration into one of our numerous cover templates. Try out our Cover Designer.


If you want to write a book and quote from another book in it, you must distinguish between literal and non-literal quotations. In any case, you have to make sure that you adhere to the citation's supporting function as required by copyright law. The quotation you use should therefore be integrated into your own text and supplement it, reinforce it, contribute to the understanding of your text, etc.

When using photos, in the technical jargon image citations, you must obtain a license for use from the photographer or you use photos from image databases that are released for the purpose of a book publication. Attention: Please read the respective license rights for the photo and the general terms and conditions of the photo database carefully.

When taking your own photos, please take care not to violate any personal rights by depicting individuals without their consent.

If you're interested in more legal topics related to book publishing, we recommend our post on the Author's right.


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