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In our hot topic series we'll be taking a close look at an interesting topic that has recently come up on our forums. Our first hot topic question: Can I use excerpts from song lyrics or a poem in my book?
Short answer: Possibly. But it is most often so expensive and so time-consuming, that you probably want to leave them out.
Long answer..... :
- Old lyrics and poems may be in the public domain and free to use. In the USA, lyrics published before 1922 are free to use. These rules are different from country to country.
- For everything published 1923 or later, you will need to 1) get permission and 2) pay for using the songs. If the lyrics are essential to the story you are planning to write, make sure you secure permission before writing the story, as it is quite possible you will not be able to secure permission or not be able to pay the high costs involved.
- if you are determined to use lyrics in your book, be aware that it can take a very long time to go through the process and that it can become very expensive. You may need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for just a few lines. Take a look at Blake Morrison's story in the Guardian, and the figures he had to pay.
But can't I quote just a line or two, using the "fair use" guidelines?
No, this is very problematic with lyrics or poems. Fair use is tricky to apply to song lyrics, as they are short and any excerpts will be a substantial portion of the whole work. People have been sued for using just one line from a lyric.
But these lyrics are posted everywhere online! Why can they be posted on websites but I can't use them in my book?
Yes, they are posted everywhere. But it's still a copyright violation to use lyrics without permission, and you still cannot use them in your book, or you will risk getting sued for copyright violation.
But won't my publisher get the permission and pay the costs?
Possibly, but probably not. If you are really determined, you can ask your agent or your publisher. Maybe they will agree to pay part of the costs. As referenced in the Guardian article above, Blake Morrison's publisher secured permission and paid half his costs.
But I really want to use lyrics! What can I do?
You have some options.
- Make up your own lyrics or write a poem that suits your need.
- Use the titles only. Titles, be they book titles, song titles or poetry titles, are not copyrighted. You can reference a title with no problem, you can even use a title as a book title or a chapter heading.
- Paraphrase so that the reader knows what you are talking about. "On the radio, John Lennon reminded me how easy it was to imagine no heaven."
- Go through the process and pay the price.
- Use material that is in the public domain.
How do I know what is in the public domain?
Use the Public Domain Information website. They have a list of lyrics that are in the public domain, and you can search for keywords. There is even a direct link to Youtube for each song that's available there.
I want to use specific lyrics, I am determined to get permission and pay the cost. What do I do?
You (or your representative) contact the copyright holder (or his representative) and ask for permission. This can be tricky. A natural first step would be to contact the artist's record company and go from there.
Do you have further information on this you'd like to share? Feel free to comment here, or on the CC forum thread.