While bumming around the internet, recently, looking for mentions of my work, I came across review of my book, The Bleeding Crowd, on “Books? Yes Please!” (link here). While it’s always nice to find good reviews for your work (good always feels better than bad, after all) what really struck me reading it was the reviewer’s comment that two main characters’ relationship in the story reminding her of song lyrics. Besides getting the song stuck in my head after looking it up (say what you will about Taylor Swift, but some of her songs are darn catchy) the comment got me thinking about the inspiration songs can have on writing.
I’ve mentioned before how song lyrics can make for good writing prompts, and I fully admit I have taken inspiration from songs before for my writing (perhaps I wasn’t thinking of Taylor Swift when I wrote The Bleeding Crowd, but the title was not-so-subtly inspired from a song). If a song or its lyrics inspires someone to write, I fully support writers running with it.
As long as they don’t run afoul of copyright law.
Copyrights, as most things buried in legalese are, are not the easiest things to understand at first glance. What’s public domain, what’s allowed under “fair use”…as writers we have to both love them for protecting our work and curse them for keeping us from using a line of another work that explains a scene perfectly.
While all modern creative works tend to fall under some sort of copyright (which means using anybody else’s words from a work after the early 1920s can get you in legal hot water) song lyrics can be a special sort of mine field. While sometimes you can get away with using a small percentage of something as “fair use” songs tend to be so short even a line or two might put you into enforceable copyright territory–and record labels are notorious for litigating anything they think is close to infringement.
For this reason, the most common advice you’ll get about using song lyrics in your writing is simply don’t.
Now, anyone who has read fan fiction sites might be familiar with “song fics” (stories that are built around/interspersed with transcribed song lyrics the author feels inspired/captures the scene they are writing). While these might be a staple of the fan fiction community, publishing any of these scenes with the intent to sell them would be a legal nightmare (and not just because fan fiction tends to use other writer’s characters which is also a copyright no-no). Since most fan fiction is written for the enjoyment of other fans/are posted with no intent for the writer to make money of their story, fan fiction as a whole tends to fly under the radar of people who might otherwise start suing. Once that story you wrote about Percy Jackson dancing with Sailor Moon to Taylor Swift’s “22” starts hitting the presses for you to sell, the legal departments of those publishers/studios/labels start whirring to life. And that is a fight no writer really wants to get into.
So what are your choices if you want to have your characters listen to a popular song in your story?
1. Mention it by title and move on.
While the lyrics of a song can be (and most often are) copyrighted, titles cannot (otherwise how could you have multiple books/songs sharing the same title?) You are more than free to write a scene which includes, “Joe turned on the radio and Tool’s ‘Lateralus’ came blasting over the speakers.” Or, “Sam groaned, this had to be the third time the club had played ‘Blurred Lines’ already tonight.” Mentioning the song titles and moving on allows you to attach a song you want to your writing while staying on the non-sue-able side of publishing.
2. Get permission from the artist/studio.
If you really want to use the actual lyrics for a song, rather than just mentioning it by name, you can also write to whoever owns the copyright for a song and respectfully request permission to use the lyrics in a book you are writing. Sometimes you may get lucky and they’ll say “sure, go for it” but even to get a ‘yes’ it’s recommended you give yourself 4 to 6 months advance time to get everything sorted away before trying to publish. You also have to accept you might also get a ‘sure, but pay us $X for using it’ (see this article on how much $X can be) or just a straight ‘no’ when you contact them–meaning you’ll need to write that part out before you publish all the same.
Note: Just attributing the lyrics to someone as you would a quote in a school essay does not mean you don’t also need permission to use the lyrics in the first place. Citing=/=permission.
3. Tempt fate.
So you want to use the lyrics, but don’t want to waste the time asking for permission. You can always go ahead and tempt fate and see if you get away with it (but really DON’T, it’s not worth it).
4. Just don’t.
Does your story really, really, really need those lyrics in it to be perfect? 99 times out of 100, probably not. In fact, naming a certain song/using a specific song in a scene will tend to only date your story. Unless you want your story to specifically be “[State] in 2007”, don’t have your characters listening to “Fergalicious” at a club. Songs rise and fall so quickly that what is extremely hot one year will drop off and become “oh yeah, that song” soon enough. If you’re going for a generic “present day” time period for your story, naming specific songs is a bad idea. If you are writing a certain year, but don’t have a character really in to pop culture, naming a song is generally unnecessary. Leave your characters at listening to “[genre] music” and use the specific song that inspired you as just that–inspiration.
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