Song Lyrics -- Use in Fiction
This is the first in a series of postings. This question was asked by my Internet Chapter of Sisters in Crime and this article appears on their web site. I will be periodically posting similar Q&A on legal topics of interest to authors. If you have a legal question you think would be of interest to other authors, please e-mail it to me at email@example.com. I will pick those I feel will benefit authors on the whole.
Q: Can I use song lyrics in my work of fiction?
A: If the song lyrics are in the public domain, i.e., out of copyright, then “yes.” If they are still under copyright, then the short answer is “no” -- not without violating someone’s copyright.
Probably not the answer you wanted. Not even the concept of “fair use” will help you. Fair use was not put in place for works of fiction. Thus, even quoting one line of a song can get you sued. Moreover, you would be violating your publishing contract. If you use a song lyric in your work without getting specific permission from the copyright holder, you will violate the clause in your contract where you warrant that the work is one hundred percent your original work and that you have not violated another person’s copyright.
If the lyrics are crucial to your work - - and come on, we are creative people, surely you can write your own lyrics - - you need to seek out the copyright holder and obtain permission. You can look up the copyright owners at the Copyright Office website or through one of the major companies that handle performance rights such as ASCAP or BMI. These companies are the ones who keep track of how many times a song is performed and handle the collection and payment of royalties; they do not give permission to use lyrics. They, however, would have in their records the name of the actual owner of the song’s lyrics (the lyricist or the music publisher if the rights were sold/assigned).
Once you find the owner of the lyrics, you will need to write to them and request a license or permission to use the words. If they don’t outright deny the request, you might get lucky and get this permission for free, but don’t hold your breath. Most song lyrics copyright holders are music publishers and they will charge. Make sure when licensing, you tell them you want a “print license.” The cost will depend on the amount of material used and the print run or projected sales of the novel.
If your work is not going to be published for public consumption, you don’t need to worry about any of the above. But if your work will be published and you want to use the lyrics, you must get a license or permission to use the lyrics. There is no way to avoid this. Your publisher should have been aware of this usage prior to offering the contract and might even have included a clause about the need for a license to be in place prior to publication. The publisher might help or might not – or they just might tell you to eliminate the lyrics altogether.
So, how likely is it that some copyright holder would read your book and see their lyrics and sue? While it might be unlikely, it could happen and you would not have a legal leg to stand on. The music industry is not tolerant of copyright violations.
After licensing, make sure a notation of the permission is displayed on the copyright page of your book; this notation should include the song title, its copyright date, and the owner of the song lyrics.
If you’ve been deprived of the use of the lyrics, you can always use the song title. Song titles are not copyrighted, just as book titles can not be copyrighted. Most titles can be used without any worries. However, some song titles are trademarked or under unfair competition protection. Unfair competition laws have been used to protect very famous titles (and even characters in books) under the reasoning that the titles and characters have taken on a life of their own and it would be damaging to their creator to allow others to benefit from their use, e.g., “Yellow Submarine.” So be careful. Trademarked song titles can be found by searching the database at the Patent and Trademark website. If the title is trademarked, you would need to follow the rules of mentioning trademarks in a work of fiction. – Monette Draper, Esq.
Author Note: Monette writes romantic suspense under the pen names of Monette Michaels and Rae Morgan and is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Speed City, Indiana Chapter of SinC, the SinC Internet Chapter, Mystery Writer's of America, and the Writer's League of Texas. She is licensed in Indiana and has been an attorney for thirty years.
Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only. All authors should consult their legal counsel concerning contract and copyright issues about which they have questions.
Senior Editor, Terran Realm
Liquid Silver Books
Last edited by Rachel Fox; March 17th, 2010 at 11:49 AM.