Friday, June 24, 2016

Music and Words ... and Copyrights

Thoughts on Music Copyrights for Authors Who Self-Publish

Two of the online author groups to which I belong have had lengthy discussions recently about using song lyrics in a novel. I’m no expert, but many years in the music publishing industry have given me some insight. Yes, you can use them; however, unless they fall under the “Fair Use” guidelines, you need to contact the copyright holder and request permission, and it will cost you something. Song titles, no problem: titles cannot be copyrighted. The industry fiercely protects the music and lyric copyrights for the artists it represents, and I see that as a good thing.

So far as music lyrics are concerned, I believe one thing that has confused writers is how accessible they are at numerous online sites. So they must be “fair game” for “fair use,” right? Wrong. If you look closely at those sites you’ll find tucked away in a corner somewhere that these are copyrighted and used by permission.

“Fair use” – it seems there are no exact guidelines. Here’s one comment I found online: “… the biggest ‘rule’ that you’ll find—if you’re searching online or asking people—is: ‘Ask explicit permission for everything beyond ‘X.’ What constitutes ‘X’ depends on whom you ask.”

My friends in the industry tell me to be on the safe side, stay with seven words or less to qualify for “fair use” (which means not to worry about seeking permission). I generally whittle that down to five or six words. Unless you believe your novel is going to sell thousands of copies, you’ll find most copyright holders (you deal with the legal department, and they are very helpful because they appreciate that you’re making the effort to do this right) may not charge that much: in my case, I’ve paid $50 - $55 per song for the first 500 books, the minimum. 

If I ever sell more copies than that of one of my novels, I’ll happily contact the Rodgers & Hammerstein folks, the George Gershwin copyright holder (it’s Alfred Corporation, by the way) or the Music Sales folks (copyright holder for Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”) and find out where we go from here.

You will receive a detailed letter of agreement which you must sign and return along with your payment, and the legal office will send you the exact wording that must appear in your book indicating you are using the lyrics with permission. This information goes on your copyright page.

Some lyrics are P.D., or Public Domain, among them most folk songs and all of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. That’s a little ironic, because the massive piracy of the G & S operettas was a factor in establishing the copyright laws in the first place. Those are fair game and you can use however much you want.

 This may remove some of the mystery. If you have any question and are using more than seven words, I would definitely contact whoever owns the copyright for the song you want to use. (You should be able to find this information on line.) 

Funny story about that “seven words”: it seems to hold true for the notes of a melody as well. In his brilliant musical Wicked, Stephen Schwartz uses the first seven notes ─ though with a different rhythm ─ of “Over the Rainbow” in the Unlimited theme which occurs throughout the show. (Elphaba sings it in “Defying Gravity.” And no, I am not going to add the lyrics here!) Apparently, Schwartz figures it’s a tribute to Harold Arlen and a nod to The Wizard of Oz.


  1. Hi Susan. Thank you for sharing this. I have always believed you just weren't allowed unless you had permission or they were old (not sure if that is true or not? Do you know?) or public domain. I had never heard of the 7 word rule. Good information.

    1. Interesting comment below. I actually addressed the "Fair Use" problem in the third paragraph of my article, which was a quote from a good source indicating "ask permission for everything beyond 'X'" and goes on to say there's no definitive answer to what constitutes 'X.' During thirty plus years in the music publishing industry I made contacts with many people who told me two things "Titles are not copyrightable" and another legal article indicated short phrases should not be a problem. If you want to use enough lyrics from a song that you definitely should seek permission
      for, don't assume it's not under copyright just because it's "old." Some copyrights are renewed. George Gershwin's songs remain protected by copyright. I used words from one of his songs in my book "How I Grew Up" and another song from "Carousel." You can generally find out if a song is in the public domain if you Google the information. Folk songs are certainly P.D. but just be sure it's a folk song! For my book "You Are My Song" I used translations of lyrics from arias and art songs, and I checked each of these even though they were written over a hundred years ago. Better safe than sorry, but the comment below seems to answer some questions! Thanks for your comment.

  2. That article is rather weak and contains more speculation than fact. It's author claims there are no exact guidelines, which is false. I've researched this particular issue, and all one needs to do is consult a law library to understand the guidelines. That said, there is zero legal precedent for a fiction writer paying any legal penalty for using song lyrics. No court has ever ruled against a writer for plagiarism or copyright infringement or violation of the Fair Use Principle regarding song lyrics. Not once. Ever. Musicians often sue other musicians, and sometimes writers sue other writers, but musicians don't sue writers. A client once asked me if he could use Bruce Springsteen lyrics in his novel. He had contacted Bruce Springsteen's agent or representative and been told no. Bruce Springsteen is particularly protective of his work and litigious. I told my client to go ahead and use the lyrics, and to notify Springsteen he was doing so without permission, because coaxing Springsteen into a lawsuit Springsteen would lose would create automatic publicity for the novel.

  3. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the information you provided and my comments about short phrases generally not being a problem was provided by an online article by an attorney and my own experience of thirty plus years in the music publishing industry. Because of that in my own writing I have sought permission if I wanted to use more than a short phrase of a song because I respect the copyright laws. Interesting to read that no author has ever been sued for using lyrics in a book. I asked permission from the Bernstein office to use a verse from a song from Bernstein's opera "Candide" and was turned down -- that was a first. The reason was basically that Mr. Bernstein's lyrics are not permitted in novels.

    Love the Springsteen story. Something to keep in mind!

  4. I see I misread the comment above. I have in my response that "no author has ever been sued," but the comment reads "no court has ever ruled against a writer" which indicates to me there may have been such cases brought to court which the author has won.