Potential stumbling block: quoting song lyrics

(Note: this originally appeared, in a shorter and slightly different form, in one of my Facebook posts in a private group. I’ve also asked this as a question in LinkedIn; I received the same answer there as I did from the copyright attorney.)

Are you writing something with published song lyrics in it? Guess what: if the song was written after 1923, you have to pay to use the lyrics. Copyright laws on songs aren’t different from literature laws, but the music industry is more prone to lawsuits than the literature industry.

You can (usually) use a line or two from a written work if you cite it as “quote (author, title of work, date)”, but you can’t us a song lyric without paid permission except under fair use, which is generally limited to parody, review, critique, or something similar.

So if I want my protagonist to sing even one line from Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song” I have to either write, “JD sings Jim Croce’s I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song to Mya”, or fork over some cash to the Croce estate (or whoever owns the copyright to that song). I only want two lines, not the whole bloody song…

I need to do this. One of the books I’m writing has a protagonist with autism; he’s non-verbal and communicates by writing notes or singing. Most of the time I can obliquely reference the song (e.g., he sang something about a watchtower, a joker, and a thief) or directly by title (e.g., “Oh, that’s Behind Blue Eyes by The Who”), but when a critical emotional state comes along and he wants to express himself in a very specific way (see the previous paragraph)… he CAN’T because I can’t quote a song. That’s annoying.

I asked for legal advice and that’s the response I got, along with a few names of agencies that would help me get in touch with whoever owns the lyric copyright so I can pay them. At US$30 – US$50 per use (or more!), it adds up.

Or I can write my own songs. I have taken this tack at times, but in some cases (such as the Croce song) the existing written word fits both the situation and the character I’ve written. There are people like that in the real world, so it fits the character’s personality and sets the mood properly. To make the character credible I have to write him as if he were a real person – and real people quote songs they know.

So here’s how I’m doing it. In an author note at the bottom of the page, I have the following. “If you want the full emotional experience of this page, pull out a legally-acquired copy of Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song” and play it while you read this.” I’ve been assured that’s legal. Kinda loses something that way, though….

Here’s an article on BookBaby regarding this situation: How To Legally Quote Song Lyrics In Books. Also, read the GalleyCat article linked in the BookBaby blog; that article quotes a copyright attorney.

I’m not complaining that I have to cite the work of others; I want to give credit where it’s due. My complaint is that I can’t cite, I have to pay a substantial fee. What’s special about putting a poem to music that makes it different from a non-accompanied poem?

To summarize, the advice I was given as to how to use song lyrics in fiction falls into these categories. These are also laid out in the blog entry, the Galleycat article, and comments on those articles and in the LinkedIn discussion I started.

  • Don’t use published song lyrics.
  • Write your own songs.
  • Reference songs by title. Titles are not covered by copyright law.
  • Reference songs obliquely.

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