Authors sometimes find it really tempting to use song lyrics in a novel or story. The words of the song are just so powerful and so right that … well, they need to be there.
If you're considering using song lyrics in your work of fiction, you may want to come up with a back-up plan. Here are some things you should know:
- you or your publisher may be able to get rights to use the lyrics – or maybe not
- it's probably going to cost you (typically a small fee per copy you make, but that can add up)
- your publisher may decide the lyrics are not worth the time / effort / money required to use them.
What about 'fair use'?
Fair Use principles were not put in place to cover fiction.
You could claim fair use if you were writing, say, a nonfiction piece looking at US cultural shifts over the last fifty years through the lens of Top-10 lyrics. To write such a work, you'd clearly need to reference some lyrics. But if you tried to get permission and pay for every single song, those barriers would jeopardize your ability to produce the work. Fair use would allow you to quote a few lines from each song to help make your point as you presented your analysis.
Putting lyrics into your fiction is something else altogether.
You'll read a lot of pages online that talk about lyric printing as 'fair use', etc., but that's a stretch of the fair use doctrine and completely unreliable when it comes to novels and other works of fiction.
What's the worst that could happen?
I'm not a lawyer. Personally, I think the worst that would probably happen is that someone would see you used the lyrics and sue to make you pay. You'd have to pay the usage fees, plus maybe some punitive damages and court fees. All that could add up to a great deal more than it would have cost to get the rights in the first place.
I further think rights-holders 'attorneys' time would be better spent going after web sites that publish lyrics and musical arrangements in their entirety.
If you have a bestseller on your hands and make millions, though, you're going to be putting yourself into a whole other class of rights violators.
Should not the artist or songwriter be pleased I love their work enough to include it?
Do not take it personally; it's business. Artists, unless they wrote their own songs or bought the rights, do not really have a claim to the lyrics. The songwriter does unless he or she sold them all. But the person you need to worry about most in this equation is typically a music publishing company. That company probably paid money for the rights to control publication of those lyrics you want. They're highly unlikely to get warm fuzzies because you want to use lyrics under their control. Even if they do, they have to pay people (such as the songwriter) for that usage.
Bottom line: Lyrics are intellectual property. They're worth money.
But is not this like free advertising for them?
In a way … maybe … if your story causes a bunch of people to rush out and buy the sheet music. But that's not likely. At best, it might cause readers to buy the song. That's covered under altogether different rights – performance and recording rights, etc. Someone, somewhere might be pleased. Depending on how things are set up, a little of that money might even trickle to the music publishing company. That prospect, however, is not likely to cause that company to let you use the lyrics for free.
So how much does it cost?
Basically, to use the song, you'll need to enter into a contract with the rights-holder. That company will tell you how much it wants for the usage you've described. A lot of factors go into the cost, including the portion of the song that you're intending to use. If you're only using a line or two, you may be looking at only a few cents per copy you make. Or it could be a lot higher. There generally are different fee schedules for hard-copy vice online use. You will not really be able to gauge the potential cost until you ask.
If all you want is a few lines from a single song, it's probably affordable. If you want to start each of thirty chapters with a line from a song, your cost and hassle will multiply. You're going to have to pay for each of those lines. Getting permission may entail going 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're an author in search of a traditional publisher, it will not do you much good to ask early. If, however, you plan to disseminate copies of the work while you're on your way to publication, the safest thing to do is to request permission from the rights-holder. Often, the company is willing to let you use the lyrics in this way for free. For example, I've been able to get permission to use sets of lyrics in online writing workshops for free because I was not making any money from the work and because only a few hundred people would visit the location where it was posted.
If you do not intend to share the work with others prior to publication, it's best to wait until you're a little closer to publication to request permission. In considering your request for rights, the company is going to want to know how many copies will be published and what format, as well as other things you can not tell them. You and your publisher can decide how to handle the request – if your publisher's even willing to deal with the issue at all. Some small publishers just do not have the resources to deal with the usage requests and the required follow-up. Your publisher may just tell you to scrap the lyrics.
If you're going the self-publishing route (hard-copy or e-book), then you should be in a position to give the rights-holder the details it wants.
How do I request permission?
Generally, you write to the music publisher. Try Googling the song name and the term "sheet music". There are lots of places that sell sheet music online for a few dollars, and you can download it right away. Often the find the the I answers the I need for this at Sheetmusicplus .
Check the details for the song to make sure you've got the right one. Sometimes the same song will end up in different arrangements, published by different companies. And sometimes multiple songs will share a title.
The sheet music will reveal the publisher and its address information and, in some cases, will even tell where to go for additional permissions. If it does not, the publishing company's webpage probably will.
If you're unable to determine the music publisher, you might find some hints by checking the songs in the databases of the entities that handle performance rights: ASCAP; BMI; and SESAC.
Once you get the music publisher's contact information, you can write to the company (some even have online forms) and tell what you want to do and what lyrics you want to use. Make sure you tell them what you want is a * print license *. Most of the publishing houses have guidelines on their sites for what they expect in a license request. After that, they'll probably write you back and / or send you a proposal contract with their terms. It's probably going to include a lot of details that make no sense to you, unless you're a lawyer; if you're not, you might want to talk to one about that contract so you understand what it is you're signing.
By the way, there are companies online who make all this easier, if you're willing to pay them to do it for you. They'll track down the info., Handle the paperwork, etc., but most authors I've talked to do not think those companies are worth what you'd pay.
What are my alternatives?
Ditch the poetry.
Write your own poem.
Find a poet or songwriter who's fighting to make a name for himself; he might be willing to let you use his material for free, if you give him proper credit.
If it's really, really got to be that song, then consider just giving its title (surrounded by double quote marks) and do not use the lyrics. Because there are only so many words that can be used, song titles can not be copyrighted except under really stringent conditions in which they can be treated as entities unto themselves – like if the song title comprises a whole line from the song or if it's a made-up word that the writer himself created or something like that. Usually, it's not so much copyright as trademark protection that comes into play there. But that's a really rare situation and so for general use, song titles are thought of as fair game – sort of like book titles. Still, the safest thing is to double-check (either through checking on the web or contacting the lyrics' rights-holder) to make sure your song name is not one of the few exceptions.
If you're just posting your writing on the web, without charging for it, then you have another option. Include the song name and a link to the song at a music-sharing site. I personally like IMEEM because it's reported to have contracts with the big recording labels so that all the appropriate people get paid when the songs are played. Plus the player has a link that your reader can follow to buy the song, so this really is a way for you to give free advertising to the song you love.
Imeem is free and ultra-easy to use. The page for a song gives you code that you can just drop onto your blog or webpage to play the music. Some of those are limited to a 30-second play, but that's usually enough to convey the essence of the music, remind the reader of the song, etc., and if the reader wants to hear the whole thing, he can always follow the link to Imeem.
A word of caution: I've only looked into IMEEM for noncommercial usage. I assume they mave different rules when it comes to works for which you're actually charging. If your readers have to pay to access your work, you'll need to contact IMEEM to find out whether your usage falls within their license terms.
Where can I get more information?