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.