8 Comments

A Little Song and Dance

You are writing a scene where your main character has invited a woman back to his place.  He pours two fingers of an expensive single malt scotch into two glasses—no ice but he adds the slightest splash of water to allow the spirit to bloom. He owns a vast vinyl collection comprised mostly of jazz but instead he pulls out a classic rock album from his early youth because they had been talking about real music earlier in the evening.  He blows dust from its surface, places the grooved disc on the turntable and carefully drops the needle on the edge.  “This might be a bit before your time,” he tells her trying to earn points by implying that he thinks she is younger than he is. The preamble of scratches and clicks plays out briefly before the opening bang of drums and fuzzy guitars issue forth. He falls back onto the couch next to her pulling her close with one arm. “These guys were genius. You familiar with Cream?”  He ignores his scotch in the prospect of sampling something more intoxicating and lightly traces a finger along the inside seam of her very tight jeans with his free hand. She turns towards him, resting her hand on his chest with a touch of experience sliding it slowly south. “Did you say, ‘Cream’” she asks breathlessly in his ear. The tangle of near-falsetto vocals tumble out of the speakers…

Screeeech—Whoa! Whoa! Hold it right there!

Sorry, I don’t mean to be pulling a shade down on a romp on the couch, I’m all right with a little horizontal mambo if there’s reason for it, and maybe that’s a discussion for another post but I had a sense that we were going to be exposed to a healthy dose of song lyrics.


Including actual lyrics from a published piece of music can be a head ache that you might want to avoid.  Simply giving credit to the songwriter or performer is no where near sufficient.  You are opening yourself up to litigation (and the music industry is indeed litigious) if you don’t take the proper steps to obtain official permission to use even one or two lines from a copyrighted recording.

The hardest part of acquiring permission is figuring out just who you need to contact. Quite often it isn’t just one owner that you will need to get in touch with and you will need to get permission from all owners. The best place to start to find the contact information of a music publisher is by going through www.ascap.com, www.bmi.com or www.sesac.com. Songwriters can only belong to one of these organizations so if you can’t find the information for a particular song in one place try the other two. Many CDs list the appropriate organization that each song has been registered to.

My understanding is that song titles and band names are fair game just like the use of names of famous individuals, product brand names, landmarks, and company or corporation names in fiction or nonfiction.  You can even hint at the content of a song by paraphrasing the lyrics. For example it would be acceptable to say something like “The Beatles were singing about the barbers and firemen of ‘Penny Lane’” without securing permission from Paul McCartney and anyone else who owns the rights to that song.

It is not uncommon for a rights holder to ask for a hefty fee in return for permission to use more popular copyrighted material in your written work. I avoid all of that by steering clear of quoting copyrighted lyrics and other material that requires permission.  Another approach that I have taken has been to invent bands and songs and write my own original lyrics as part of a story.

If you are working with a traditional publisher, you need to work closely with them and their legal department to secure the proper permissions. If you are self-published, you need to be all the more diligent in making sure you follow all the rules, convoluted as they might be. As they say: ignorance of the law is no defense. Ultimately, you, as the author of a work will be the one who will pay if you don’t go through the proper channels. Do your homework and once you have all the facts, you can decide just how integral a snippet of a song lyrics is to your book.

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illustration by Andy Black

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8 comments on “A Little Song and Dance

  1. Loved that opening vignette by the way.

    Glad I read this! I wasn’t aware of any of this and have put lyrics in one of my WIPs. Eek. This saved me from making a serious error. Thank you.

    • I guess it was timely. Glad it helped. definitely check into getting permission. We don’t want you getting in trouble.

      I had a feeling you might like the opening… ; )

  2. Reblogged this on Honesty and commented:
    Andy is laying down a beat that is gonna help keep you outta trouble. Check that out.

  3. Fortunately the “music industry” is slowly drifiting, at least in part, away from the industrial behemoth of old. As more bands give the finger to record labels and encourage the sharing of their work among their fans, more artists actually retain the full rights to their songs, lyrics and all. If you really want actual song lyrics in your novel, ask those bands. They’ll be much more likely to give permission, and quite possibly without a license fee – in their case it’s free advertising, and showing their support for free remix culture. Win win for both sides.

    As for the need to use Cream, it’s a shame you can’t use such masterpieces directly, but the paraphrasing approach is great too – really let’s you stretch those writer’s muscles :)

    • Great points. Someone over on reddit.com made a similar comment and pointed out that the worst that could happen is that the band would say no, but that you at least got a chance to talk to members of a band you like.

  4. [...] Black presents A little Song and Dance posted at Andy’s Words & Pictures, saying, “Keep yourself out of trouble when [...]

  5. Good advice about a much misunderstood matter. Obtaining permission to use lyrics in a book is often more difficult and time consuming than writing the book.

    • Thanks for the note. I posted this article a while back but I think it is information that still holds up. Better safe than sorry and I think you are right about getting permission can be as much of a process as writing the book…

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