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Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer


Queries, Pitches and Proposals

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The Inquiring Writer:
Using Song Lyrics

by Dawn Copeman

Two readers wanted to know if they could use song lyrics or titles, or quotes from famous people in their writing, whether they'd need permission and if so, how do they set about getting it.

The resounding answer from all our respondents is yes, you do need permission. Christopher Wills explains: "Song lyrics and poems are owned and so permission should always be gained to use them in writing.

"The music industry is extremely litigious and will sue people down to everything they own if their lyrics are used without permission. Also, no decent publisher would ever dare publish stuff with song lyrics in it without having permission.

"Having said that, if you can find the owner of the lyrics (not always the person who write the song because rights can be sold) permission will often be given if the song is old or not currently being used in adverts, film soundtracks etc (this is because those users will have paid a considerable sum to use the song in an advert or film)."

"Another point to consider is why are you using the song (or poem)? If it is to create mood or atmosphere it might be worth thinking again. The mood or atmosphere you experience when you hear a song is not necessarily going to be the same for the reader because they will have different experiences from you. Unless you have permission you should find other ways to create the mood or atmosphere you want.

"One thing to consider. Imagine you wrote a brilliant paragraph describing, say, a sunset, then a songwriter lifted it from your novel, put it word for word as a verse in a song and it became a worldwide hit, and you were not asked for permission and you were not offered any compensation. Most of us would go straight down to the lawyer's. A song or a poem is written by someone who expects payment for their work just as most of us hope to receive payment for our writing; using somebody else's words without permission is stealing. Don't try the 'public domain' argument either unless the songwriter has been dead for many years (75 years for novels in the UK I believe). [Editor's Note: Visit http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm to determine when copyright in a work expires.]

"Apologies if this is not what people want to hear but better safe than sorry."

Elizabeth Creith wrote in with a cautionary tale about what can happen if you use lyrics without permission: "I remembered this thread on Zoetrope and hunted it up. I'd say the little lesson here is to be very, very cautious.

"According to the thread on Zoetrope, which came from an article in the Guardian, it cost one author $1500 to quote two lines from a Bob Marley song in his novel. The concept of fair use doesn't apply to lyrics, which is why this particular author, Blake Morrison, had to pay 500 to quote one line of 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' by the Stones, 535 for a line of 'Wonderwall' by Oasis and 735 for one line from 'When I'm Sixty Four'."

Ouch, that is an expensive mistake to make. So, what if we track down the owner of the copyright as Christopher Wills suggested; would that work? Not according to Marilyn Donahue. She wrote: "This is one of the pickiest areas of getting permissions. When I researched and found the composer of 'Accentuate the Positive' (Johnny Mercer), I discovered that it would cost me a hefty fee to use the words. Permission would certainly be granted, but at a price. Solution? I used other words.

"For other permission to quote from literary works, I always write the publisher, explaining where and how I am going to use the words. For example, if I say I want to use some lines from a book to illustrate excellent development of character, setting, point of view, etc., the publisher usually writes back with a specific permission insert to be placed in the front pages of the book. I have also had to get permission to quote from my own words once they are in published form -- for example, a magazine article or short story that I want to use to prove a point. In such cases, I have never been turned down, and there has been no charge.

"This information will appear in extended form in my forthcoming book, A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Fiction for Young Adults, from E & E Publishing."

So, what to do? Do we have to leave music out of our books? Well, no. Many authors, Ian Rankin comes to mind: simply use the titles of songs to suggest the mood of their character. This is also what Sharon Donahue suggests. She wrote: "I researched this and found that titles of songs are okay but for any words from the song you must get permission from songwriter or publisher and you may have to pay. I'm no expert, so you may want to verify this."

So I did. I hunted around the web and the general consensus is that song titles are not generally copyright-protected; hence you can get several songs with the same title. So if you do want to add music to your scene, you just have to say what your character is listening to, but not quote the actual lyrics.

For more information on Blake Morrison's experience with song lyrics visit this link: http://tinyurl.com/24w7brp.

Copyright © 2010 Dawn Copeman


This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Dawn Copeman is a UK-based freelance writer and educator who has published over 300 articles on the topics of travel, cookery, history, health and writing. An experienced commercial freelancer, Dawn contributed several chapters on commercial writing to Moira Allen's Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Edition).

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