One of the questions I’m frequently asked at writing conferences is whether it’s permissible to quote a few stanzas from a poem, or a paragraph or two, from a published book in a contest entry.
The general answer is “yes”, provided the quote does not take up a large proportion of space. For example, if the poetry line limit is 50 lines and the quote takes up 8 of those lines, the answer is definitely “No!” If the story is limited to 1,000 words, and the quote totals 100, the answer is again a definite negative.
As a general rule, the total proportion of quotes in a contest entry should not exceed 3% of the total word count. So you are looking at around a 30 words quote maximum in a 1,000-word essay, or 3 lines maximum in a 100-line poem.
The next question asked is, “Must permission be obtained to quote from a copyrighted work?”
The general answer is again “No!” Copyrighted songs are the most significant exception. Quoting even a single line from a popular song without permission, could bring the wrath of ASCAP down on your head. At one stage a few over-zealous ASCAP members wished to make even the listing of a song’s title subject to royalty, but this move was seen by the majority of members as self-defeating. But quote even one line, and you could land in trouble!
Of course it should be remembered that how rules (either specifically written down or generally assumed) are enforced, is entirely a matter for the contest organizers – most of whom delegate this responsibility to the judges. I have met judges who completely disregarded the contest’s written rules in their deliberations. I’ve also run across judges who made up their own rules, and rejected entries out of sight simply because they transgressed their own personal convictions.
In my book, "Write Ways To WIN WRITING CONTESTS", I quote in Chapter Six from the judge’s report of one the world’s most prestigious poetry contests, which annually attracts around 7,000 entries. While the judge concedes "there were some splendid comic poems," she adds that it was "hard to prefer them to the more somber poems about Alzheimer’s, suicide and loss." Needless to say, not even the slightest whisper of the judge’s predeliction appeared in the contest’s rules. In fact, the rules openly stated that all themes and genres were welcome. No hint whatever that all humorous verse, no matter how inspired, would be regarded as instant fodder for the reject basket!
It always amazes me that for less than the cost of a single entry fee, hundreds of entrants could have saved their money, their time, their hopes and aspirations just by heeding the warning in a single, three-line paragraph in my book! (And it's a book that's crammed full of other invaluable advice as well!)