Song lyrics in fiction – what writers need to know

Authors sometimes find it really tempting to use song lyrics in a novel or story. The lyrics of the song are so powerful and so appropriate that…… Well, they have to be there.

If you are considering using the lyrics in your fictional work, you may want to come up with a contingency plan. Here are a few things you should know:

you or your publisher may be able to get the right to use the texts – or maybe not
it will probably cost you (usually a small fee for making a copy, but this may add up)
Your publisher may decide that the texts are not worth the time/effort/ money required to use them.
What about “fair use”?

Fair use rules have not been introduced to cover fiction.

You may claim that fair use, if you have written, say, a carefree work, looking at U.S. cultural changes over the past fifty years through the Top-10 lens of the texts. To write such a work, you would need to clearly refer to some of the lyrics. But if you tried to get permission and pay for each song, these barriers would threaten your ability to produce the song. Fair use will allow you to quote a few poems from each song to help you comment on the presentation of the analysis.

Placing lyrics in fiction is something completely different.

You’ll read many websites that talk about printing lyrics as “fair use”, etc., but this is part of the doctrine of fair use and completely unbelievable when it comes to novels and other works of fiction.

What is the worst thing that can happen?

I am not a lawyer. Personally, I think the worst thing that would probably happen is that someone would see that you would use the texts and sue you to pay. You would have to pay usage fees, plus perhaps some criminal damages and court fees. All this could add much more than it would cost to get your rights first.

In addition, I believe that the time of attorneys of rights holders would be better spent on websites that publish lyrics and musical arrangements in their entirety.

If you have a bestseller in your hands and earn millions, though, you are going to be introducing yourself to another class of infringers.

Shouldn’t an artist or composer be happy that I love their work enough to turn it on?

Don’t take it yourself, it’s business. Artists, unless they have written their own songs or bought rights, do not really have the right to lyrics. The songwriter does it unless he has sold them all. But the person you have to worry about the most in this equation is usually a music publishing house. Probably this company has paid money for the right to control the publication of the lyrics you want. They are very unlikely to get warm blurs because you want to use lyrics under their control. Even if that happens, they have to pay people (such as the lyricist) for it.

At the bottom: Texts are intellectual property. They are worth the money.

But isn’t it like free advertising for them?

In a sense……. maybe…… if your story causes a group of people to rush and buy a note. But that’s not likely. At best, it can cause readers to buy a song. This is covered by completely different laws – performance and recording rights, etc. Someone can be satisfied somewhere. Depending on how things are set up, a bit of that money can even trickly end up in a music publishing house. This perspective, however, will not prevent the company from allowing you to use the lyrics for free.

How much does it cost?

Basically, in order to use a work, you will need to enter into an agreement with the copyright holder. This company will tell you how much they want for the application you describe. Many factors influence the cost, including the portion of the work you intend to use. If you only use a line or two, you can only look at a few cents per copy you have made. Or it can be much higher. In general, there are different schedules for paying for paper vices for online use. You will not be able to measure potential costs until you ask.

If all you want is a few lines with one song, it’s probably affordable. If you want to start each of the thirty chapters with a poem with a song, your cost and hassle will multiply. You will have to pay for each of these lines. Obtaining permission may involve moving to not one, but several, different companies.

How do I get started?

Basically, you start the process by writing to the entity that manages the rights.

If you are an author in search of a traditional publisher, you will not be well advised to ask early. However, if you plan to distribute copies of a work on its way to publication, it is safest to ask for the copyright owner’s consent. Often the company is willing to allow you to use the text.

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