Recently I’ve been looking to borrow quotes. None of the sources are from authors still living, indeed most of the people I’m looking to borrow from have been dead for hundreds if not thousands of years. They include passages from the Book of Revelations (up there with Ecclesiastes as my favorite Bible book), quotes from ancient translated Indian caste law, quotes on Medieval law from various British kings, quotes on social ills by Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, etc…
Is it wrong to do that?
My feeling is that it’s not so bad, which might be expected since I’m considering it. There’s certainly no legal basis for anyone to cause trouble. Aristotle will not be filing suit for Intellectual Property violation, that’s clear. As for taking the work of others and co-opting it, well, yes, that’s trickier, so let me be clear about what I’m doing and we’ll see.
Often at the start of a chapter in fantasy and SF novels there’s a bit of world-building background shoe-horned in as a quote. In ‘Anathem’ it’s excerpts from a kind of dictionary. In most fantasy epics it’s bits of poetry and prophecy.
In mine, it’s variously chunks from the holy book (The Book of Jabbler), chunks from the King’s Ley (law), or sections of social commentary from the city’s pamphleteers. For these I wanted verisimilitude. I also wanted quotes that might sound strangely familiar. My fantasy world is not a million miles from reality, and I want the echoes to be clear.
So I take a quote from realia, in some cases famous, others not; and I adapt it. I chop it up, reorder it, and switch in and out nouns so that it works for my world.
Here’s an example. Cicero variously had these things to say about crucifixion-
– It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then, shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination.
– Crucifixion is a most cruel and disgusting punishment.
– Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.
Which I combined and slightly adapted to fit the (quite similar) punishment of the Spike in my world-
It is a crime to put a Jabbler citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then, should we say of the Spike? It is a most cruel and disgusting punishment, the most wretched of deaths. The very mention of it should be far removed not only from a Jabbler citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.
In my view, it adds weight and history to a world that obviously has neither for the reader (yet). I wouldn’t be claiming the quote as my own either, but rather ascribing it to historic persons in the world of my book; though fair enough that may be splitting hairs.
So what do we think- is it OK to borrow/copy like this?