Music as Inspiration or Copyright violation?

Using Lyrics in Your Fiction

2020 saw the birth of the book I’m currently working on, and it was all inspired by music. In fact, the female lead character, Amaryllis is based on the music of Taylor Momsen and The Pretty Reckless. So, I had this great idea to set the tone and offer a glimpse into the thoughts of the pov character for each chapter with a snippet of lyrics; lyrics from The Pretty Reckless for Amaryllis, and lyrics from various artists for the male lead, LeRoy. It’s a time-travel story, titled The Outlaw & the Rock Star. The only catch is, an author has to be careful not to infringe on the copyright when using lyrics in her fiction.

Copyright, whether in the literary arena or the music industry, is serious business. Artists and writers protect that which they have created, as they should. As a writer, I can’t imagine the outrage I would feel, were I to learn someone else had infringed on my copyright. My words are my creation. They came from me. No one else on the planet can write them in just the way I wrote them, unless they steal them. And, let’s face it folks, theft is what copyright infringement is. So, I get why writers and artist want to protect their creations. I want my work to be protected, too.

According to Matt Knight on in “Using Lyrics in Fiction” (5 January 2019) on Sidebar Saturdays, obtaining copyright permission for song lyrics involves a ton of research into who actually holds the copyright, and then contacting them to request permission to use specific lyrics in your fiction, and pay the requested fee to obtain copyright permission. It can be both expensive and time consuming.

Knight offers a few ways around obtaining copyright permission, including only using the song title, since titles cannot be copyrighted, or using a small enough portion of the lyrics so that you can claim fair use, or choosing different lyrics from the Public Domain realm. Since this one of my characters is based on the music from one specific band, using Public Domain lyrics doesn’t seem to be an option. Since the lyrics are going to be used to set the tone of the story, using only titles wouldn’t really work. I really feel the story would loose a lot if I don’t include the lyrics, although I might be able to trim some of them a little.

So, I’m left looking at researching each individual song and contacting each copyright holder to gain permission to use their lyrics in my work, which seems like a lot of work. In the case of The Pretty Reckless, I will need copyright permission for multiple songs, so it may be an up hill battle, and it could get very expensive.

I can do the research and strive to obtain all the copyright permissions that are needed. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that part, or that I think it will be easy, but nothing good ever is. I’ve only written about six chapters, but my heart is already invested in these characters and their story. This is going to be more of a project than I realized when I concieved of the idea for this book. Here’s hoping this venture doesn’t cost more than I can afford.


20 Comments on “Music as Inspiration or Copyright violation?”

  1. If I want to mention a song that my character used I just mention the title and the mood it puts the character in. I spend more time talking about the character’s actions when the song is played, and it works well. I prefer not to get involved in copyright issues.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good advice, Brenda. I would have to agree. If the inspiration for this book wasn’t hinged on the lyrics, kind of as a packaged idea for the whole project, I wouldn’t even be considering it. And the expense may put that part of it beyond my reach. Then I would have to rethink the story, but I haven’t given up yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Val Amant says:

    I hang my hat on “fair use” as defined “Fair use is defined as any copying of copyrighted material (even verbatim) for a limited purpose, such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, education, or parody.” —– which can be arguable but if the lyrics are kept less than 30 seconds of “record time”, it is considered “fair use” under copyright infringement. Considering, it’s really no big issue for me. For example, the lyrics probably fall on millions of ears whereas my write falls on a few hundred at most making the issue rather moot.

    See Section 107 of the Copyright Act.

    Be HaPpY!
    Val

    Liked by 1 person

    • Song lyrics don’t come under the “fair use” ruling, Val. They are excluded on the grounds that most songs are too short for even one line to be fair.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Val Amant says:

        Section 107 text disagrees with your unsubstantiated claim. It being the LAW I stand with the LAW as long as the use falls within the parameters cited.

        Regards,
        Val

        Liked by 2 people

      • A good point, Sarah. The courts do look at the percentage of the whole when determining “fair use”. Maybe we should only use lyrics from epic songs. Lol. I think I’d rather be safe than sorry. Unless I decide to not include the lyrics at all, I think I have no choice to to request permission for each one and hope for the best.

        Liked by 1 person

    • That may work, Val. But if your book becomes a best seller and you are making monetary gain from it, it may ruffle some copyright holder’s feathers and you could end up in a legal battle that could cost a whole lot more than it would to just pay for the copyright permission.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Val Amant says:

        First, the music industry is so convoluted who know from where permissions need to be acquired? It may take many moons before you get to the true holder of the rights. Remember Taylor Swift fighting for the rights of her OWN songs!?!

        Second, don’t worry honey, no “best sellers” will suddenly erupt from here but sometimes “dead” artists became famous overnight. So, if that be the case, who is the holder of the rights to my work!?! And, how do I collect? :O) But let’s say a best seller happens, the suit can ALWAYS be settled and most likely end up to be nothing more than pocket money.

        Third, let them come and take all of my fame and fortune, all 39 cents :O\ …. because …..

        Fourth, ALL “my” writing is held by a company (mine), which first, is a “ghost” company and second, it ain’t worth [explicitive] by serious manipulation of funds. My writing being held by the company frees me of ALL liability, they can’t touch me! :O)

        My suggestion if you want to be a serious writer is 1) form a company for protection of self and 2) get a website. That’s what the pros do. Then, let “your” attorney deal with “lyrics” and that allows you to keep on writing your “best sellers”.

        WRITE ON!
        Val

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I use song titles as chapter headings often if they fit the theme of the story. I’ve only used actual lyrics in one book, and that was thanks to the American composer/singer. Paul Tate giving me permission to do so for free. Chris Robertson, a member of IASD, kindly volunteered a song from an album when I asked for fictional words for a theme. The book, One Alone in the World, was built around Paul Tait’s music, and I wrote it after, not before, he gave me written permission. Obtaining copyright permission for free isn’t impossible. Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber will, sometimes, but he’d sue, quite rightly, if you didn’t ask.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fair comment. I’ve never risked it, so I’ve never been challenged as to its validity. It’s not impossible International Law differs from UK Law anyway.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Val Amant says:

        You’re correct.

        I don’t know what the implications are, let’s say using, UK lyrics in a USA story, the international laws may cross.

        For example I used a portion of a verse from the Beatles “Yesterday” in my story “YOU”. We’re talking 1965 … so … it could be a 10 year court case and the smart thing is to “Let it Be” :O)

        When 17 students/staff were murdered in Parkland Fl several years ago I use a rendition of Hallelujah as performed by two artists. Since it was a YOU TUBE script I ask their permission.

        So I am selective of how to work it. Personally, I am a creative musician, I’d be tickled to death if someone copied my lyrics! :O) I created the lyrics for several YOU TUBE book promos and used musicians from around the world to create the song. It’s a lot of fun.

        If someone bitches, it’s their problem. At 70, I could give a you know what. :O\

        Be HaPpY!
        Val

        Liked by 3 people

        • I have to agree, Val. If someone quoted from something I wrote, I would be thrilled. Copyright be damned. And if requested, I would grant it, probably without charge. When I conceived of this idea, I kind of looked at it like a win/win. I would use the lyrics and the book promotion would be promoting their music, as well. That was my thinking initially. Apparently, much of the music industry may not see it that way, though.

          Liked by 1 person

    • You know, Sarah, using titles as chapter headings might work for my story. I’ll have to play with it and see if it still has the effects I want. Definitely worth looking into.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Chapter titles worked for me. Success depends on one of two things. A title being self-explanatory, as with Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, or readers being familiar with the music. Abba is a good example. They were around in the 1970s and their songs are still known through movies. The fame of a particular group or singer is less reliable. Some big names’ songs mean nothing unless a reader happens to be a fan. What would you make of Blue Suede Shoes if you’d never heard it? I can’t remember the words!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re right, Sarah. And in my case, although one character is based on the music of a single grunge band, the other is based on the music of several, both rock and country/western, so the chances of readers being familiar with all are slim. Something that will have to be considered when deciding if chapter titles will work for me. Thanks for your suggestions. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. willedare says:

    As a songwriter, I found this blog post — and the stream of comments it inspired — to be very comforting. I hope you are able to reach the copyright owners (maybe via THEIR website?) and get the rights for free.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Unfortunately, since every chapter has lyrics inspiring it, there are many artists involved, and the chapters with main female character POV almost covers the band’s entire body of works. I think I will attempt to get permissions, but I’m also coming up with an alternate plan in case they are either not forthcoming or more than my meager finaces can afford. Thank you for your comment.

      Like


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