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Why You Can’t Use Song Lyrics in Your Fiction

Rick Taubold

One of the issues I frequently encounter is the use of song lyrics in fiction. The short is that song lyrics are protected by copyright and you cannot use someone else’s song lyrics without permission from the copyright holder.

When I tell writers this, some will understand, but I often get pushback, and the responses almost always are one of the following:

  1. Can I use them as long as I credit the songwriter?
  2. Is it okay if I just use one or two lines?
  3. Isn’t there something called “fair use” that applies?
  4. I couldn’t find out who to ask for permission, so is it okay to use them in that case?

The answer to all four of these is NO!

You NEED PERMISSION to use someone else’s work, and since even one or two lines of a song constitutes a significant part of the song, it’s not the same as quoting a few sentences from a book and crediting the source. On top of that, song lyrics are more jealously guarded.

Sounds of Earth

But let me expand a little here on those four points.

  1. If you’re writing fiction and intend to publish it, that means you’re potentially profiting from it and thereby profiting from someone else’s copyrighted material. The original songwriter has the legal right to control all use of the copyrighted material.
  2. When it comes to song lyrics, one or two lines represent a significant percentage of the total song, and it’s therefore different from using a quote from a book. There is no legal ruling that says it’s okay as long as you just use less than a certain percentage of the material.
  3. Let’s clear up what “fair use” means. First off, fair use is a legal defense if you’re sued, not a right or permission. Fair use was designed to allow news media, reviewers, educators, and the like to be able to use copyrighted material without permission. There are four tests for fair use, but these are only rough guidelines for the courts to use. If your intended use satisfies ALL FOUR of these, THEN you might be okay if you get sued.
    • The purpose of the use
    • The nature of the copyrighted work
    • The amount or substantiality of the portion used in relation to the whole work
    • The effect of the use on the potential market or value of the copyrighted work

Songs

If you’re using the song lyrics in a piece of fiction for potential sale or profit, then it usually fails the first test automatically.

And I will say again, that Fair Use does not give you permission to use something. It only serves as a legal defense if the copyright holder takes you to court over the use. Even if you believe your use meets all of the criteria, you cannot rely on the court to see it your way.

Your inability to locate or contact the copyright holder is never an excuse. If you find someone’s dropped wallet that contains not only money but identification cards, being unable to locate the wallet’s owner does not give you permission to keep the money in it.

Light Songs

The only times you can safely use someone else’s song lyrics in your fiction is by obtaining permission or if the song now falls in the public domain.

Of course, one way around this whole problem is to write your own song lyrics for your story.

Here are several relevant article links for further information:

Sidebar Saturdays: Using Song Lyrics in Fiction
Sidebar Saturdays: Using Song Lyrics in yor Novel
Bookbaby Blog: How to legally quote song lyrics in your book

And one link that appears at the end of that last article:

Bookbaby Blog: Lyrics In Books: Your Questions Answered

Rick Taubold
www.ricktaubold.com
Blog: writewell.silverpen.org
Editor: Fabula Argentea magazine

 

 

 

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