Dear Mr McCartney: Can I use your song?

I'm on the second revision of a novel in which the main
character is deep into music and often uses the lyrics to communicate what she's trying to say.

Right now she's quoting about 16 songs--more than 1/2 by known artists. I know it's the author's job to secure permissions. The question is would it make you, the agent, or an editor reject the manuscript out of hand? (Years behind the editor's desk tells me what a pain this could be.)

One of Miss Snark's colleagues still has footprints on her posterior from trying to secure copyright permissions for rock lyrics. She had a done deal, an editor twitching feverishly on the hook for the book, all that remained was to secure clearances.

Well you won't be reading that book any time soon. Clearances were not only not forthcoming, there was much hullaballoo, screeching and yelling about even asking.

Out right rejection..no. Very very cautious consideration..yes. Plus, they don't just say ok. They say Ok, show me the money.

And, it's hard to get permissions unless the book is sold, and it's hard to sell a book unless you have permissions.

Miss Snark can dig up enough problems selling things without adding to the list by including lyrics.


Anonymous said...

This snarkling is deeply indebted for your answer. I was afraid that was the way the world would work. Hot damn. Wish there was a way around it. I'd pay the money.
I thank you. My main character thanks you. My copyeditor thanks you.


Kitty said...

How much of the song can you use before you must get permission? Example: Like McCartney always says, "it's been a hard day's night."

Does this same rule apply to books and their authors?

JD Rhoades said...

I've been lucky. Both of my first two book have titles based on song lyrics and quote the lyrics in the book. The hard part is tracking down the person who can actually say "yes." But once I did that, the artists and their reps have been quite nice and helpful and haven't gouged me. Two of the artists involved had me donate to their favorite charity, which I thought was pretty classy. But there were some scares, yes, and I think the third one may drop the quote (but keep the title).

Miss Snark said...

"Fair Use" is what they call what and /or how much you can quote without getting permission. And yes, the same thing applies to books, and anythng else with copyright protection. How much is ok is a questions Miss Snark must regretfully pass over to Shyster Snark Esq. who charges Miss Snark $350 an hour to discuss such matters. And that's the family rate!!

Kitty said...

I can understand, but still ... ouch!

Anonymous said...

I've been told the same thing, that I can't even have characters say, in dialogue, "If six were nine," or some other short quotation from a song. HOWEVER, Bill Fitzhugh does it wholesale in his mystery novel RADIO ACTIVITY that I just got in hardcover, and search though I might, I never found any list of permissions or acknowledgements. I loved the book. It could not have been done without the song bits. So what happened here? Did they just hope no one would notice? Did I miss the permissions list? Does it not have to be listed with the copyright info on the back of the title page? Am I just whining into the void here? Are these rhetorical questions?


Anonymous said...

I think it has to be reasonable and distinctive or clear that the quote is from a song.
For example, if one has a character say "I'm leaving on a jet plane," howinhell can Gordon Lightfoot claim it is an infringement?Neither can he if a character says "I don't know when I'll be back again." from the store or whatever.

Bill Peschel said...

There was a thread on DorothyL that discussed this matter. Rather than quote quote quote, I'll summarize the responses:

* One paid between $50 and $150 each to use three lyrics for his book. The four music publisher wanted 50 cents per copy in royalty. The writer rewrote the scene.

* One who worked for a famous musical team said that most music publishing companies wouldn't know who to refer your question to. If the music came from two who worked together (think Gilbert & Sullivan), you'd have to get clearances from both families, each of whom would want to know a) how much; and b) why should I let you use the lyrics to sell a story, for example, about a serial killer who likes to sing G&S songs while corpsifying his victims?

I seem to recall another poster who mentioned that musicians generally were happy to be quoted (some would only want a copy of the book), but managers and agents were more, ahem, mercenary. Or else, they didn't want the hassle and quote you an outrageous price just to go away.

Anonymous said...

I have only one question:

WHY oh WHY? Isn't this author making up her OWN song lyrics for a songwriter character that she's INVENTED hserself?

How BORING to pick up a book and read song lyrics an author has not invented by a character the author has not invented...

Sorry, as a reader, I'd have to dump this book in to the dirty kitty litter bag...pronto....

Aren't writers supposed to INVENT things? Make up things? Create things?

Maybe, I'm just an oldie, out-of-touch, songwriter....

Raelynn Hillhouse said...

I felt like I needed a PI to help me track down who actually held or repped the rights to the Beatles' "Back in the USSR" for RIFT ZONE. I started many chapters with ironic quotes from famous commies (it's a Cold War thriller) and I wanted to deviate for a chapter in which the heroine was landing in Moscow in a crippled Pan Am plane that had just survived a bomb going off. I was bounced from lawyers to record companies and back and finally ran out of time. So instead of using a quote, I started the chapter with the heroine's inner thoughts, one paragraph in italics: Man, I had a dreadful flight. I'm back in the USSR.

No lyrics. No quotes. Just her thoughts. And she's not even humming.

Anonymous said...

per the rights and permissions departments of major publishers: you may quote two lines of a given poem and/or song without securing permission. anything more than that and you need to ask, and of course to pay.

Miss Snark said...

Copyright is NOT owned by the publisher, it's owned by the author or their designee. Whe you "sell" something to a publisher you are either licensing or granting them certain rights to use your work. They can't just use it for whatever they want and they can't give someone permission to use your work as part of another work.

You grant reviewers the rights to quote from the work for review purposes but if I'm writing my memoirs I can't quote "Devil with a Blue Dress On" just cause it's my personal theme song.

But, please. If you are quoting lyrics, you need to be getting your advice from intellectual propery lawyers, NOT from Miss Snark, no matter how compelling and suave she sounds.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking that "you may quote two lines of a given poem and/or song without securing permission" is based on the doctrine of fair use. On DorothyL (hi, Bill!), they told me that fair use would not cover using 2 lines of a 12-line song the way it would cover using 2 lines out of a book that's 500 pages long, or something like that. That it was too large a portion of the overall work. However, I see this sort of thing done, and the writer will put, "As the song goes, Lucy in the sky with diamonds!" So that is what I've done. Put it into dialogue, and said, "As the song goes." (I only did that a couple of times per mystery, and it related to the theme.)

Of course, it's always best if you choose to quote Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, and others whose copyrights have run out and whose works are in the public domain! (*GRIN*) Say, Stephen Foster. *wink* But sometimes it's fun to allude to a pop culture thing.

I do have a book in which my waitress heroine is also a songwriter and singer . . . think "Baja Oklahoma" to some extent. In that one, I put several of my own songs, lyrics only. But I think the person who was originally asking had something he/she wanted to quote from a "famous song," and that's how the question arose. I have a couple of books in hand here where the author apparently relied on fair use and no one made a stink, so I'm hoping this will hold in the mystery where I had my sisters make the allusions. However, as you say, it'll be a matter for the legal people at the publishing house to rule on. In my various mysteries, it would be easy to take the stuff out--a few lines here or there. It's funnier WITH, of course. But in the mystery I talked about, which is all about classic rock radio and the problem of monolithic Clear Channel ownership of the airwaves, the song lyrics and titles are part of the whole and really couldn't be taken out without messing up his mystery--and nobody has questioned it, so I imagine it went under the radar and was ruled to be "fair use." Go figure.

Rachel said...


Please... specifically, where did you find the info that you may quote up to two lines without securing permission? I had believed that to be true, myself, but would love to know your source for that info... very important to me! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

As Miss Snark is elsewhere momentarily detained, reading funny passages from her bookbag aloud to George Clooney while we toil in the sweatshops of Art, I will offer the following:

First, the music folks have bigger fish to fry right now: internet downloads have got the lawyers so up to their eyeballs in work that nobody has time to read novels. . .

Second, for a good synopsis of fair use and how it plays out in written use of copyrighted material. . . the Stanford University webpages for its writers, which is very thorough and even covers the issue of whether parody infringes copyrights.

Third, song titles cannot be copyrighted. If you'll notice, many of them have been, in fact, ripped off from literary sources or older songs in the public domain.

I published a novel with over 30 quotes, partly because it is a novel about music, and no one refused permission. Some asked for nominal fees, but I often used songs that were already in the public domain. . . Dylan took a lot of his stuff from Elizabethan ballads, and often changed the lyrics, so you have to look at the song itself as well as the writer. Sometimes writers "claim" songwriting credits on things that are hundreds of years old, esp. where blues and gospel are concerned. Some of these artists or their heirs are wonderful to work with, such as Laurie Anderson and the Woody Guthrie Foundation. They request copies of the finished work, too.

ASCAP and BMI have enormous online registries that are great for tracking down who "has the publishing" on songs. That's the way they say it: Michael Jackson "has the publishing" on Beatles songs.

Enough of this. Don't sweat quoting songs. Do it if you need to. If the agent says don't do it, get a new agent.

If your publisher does not already understand these issues, consider finding another. If you'll notice your contract, it probably says something like in the event of litigation, it is YOUR house, land, and first-born child that the "artist" will claim, not your publisher's, as compensation in the event your books sells enough to cause you to pop up on the music mogul radar. Otherwise, literary novels are strictly not worth their time.

Violet Strange said...

It's the "use the lyrics to communicate what she's trying to say" that scares me. This just doesn't work. Why? Everyone has difference associations from a particular song.

Quoting U2 may mean all the world to you and your character, but to me it might just remind me of the poser asshole who lived down the hall freshman year.

You need to control the reader's reactions to your work. Using lyrics to communicate undercuts that.

Of course, I am a fan of header quotes for books and chapters.