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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