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.