mu’sic (mŭ’zĭk), n., any art over which the Muses presided, esp. music, lyric poetry set and sung to music, fr. mousikos belonging to the Muses or fine arts.
Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd Edition, 1954.
Music evokes emotion, sets a mood, and brings fresh, dynamic and sometimes startling ideas to a writer. For many writers, music is a muse. Sometimes the lyrics of a song become an integral part of a character or a theme for a story. When that happens, the written work can become inextricably bound to the lyrics in the writer’s mind. As part of sharing their creative vision with the reader, writers often want to incorporate the lyrics of the song that inspires them or evokes their characters into the story.
But just like the creative work of an author, a book, is protected by copyright, the creative works of songwriters, lyrics, are protected by copyright. In order to use someone else’s lyrics in your fiction without infringing that creator’s rights, you need to either:
- Establish that the song is in the public domain;
- Obtain permission from the publisher of the lyrics;
- Satisfy the requirements of the fair use defense; or
- Avoid the use of lyrics altogether.
Writers intent on using song lyrics in fiction need to keep these points in mind.
Songs in the Public Domain
Creative works in the public domain are not protected by copyright, they are owned by the public and can be used in your story. Trying to figure out whether lyrics to certain songs are in the public domain can be tricky.
Generally speaking, any song published after 1977 is still protected by copyright. Any song published before 1926 is in the public domain. Today (in 2021), songs published between 1926 and 1977 need to have their publishing history traced carefully to figure out whether they are protected by copyright or are in the public domain. Every year there are more works in the public domain.
The obvious problem, of course, is that songs written 95 years ago do not tend to inspire today's fiction writers, suggest contemporary themes, or evoke modern characters. Public domain status for those songs is useful in works of historic fiction, but not in contemporary stories.
Let’s take a look at how three different authors of contemporary fiction handled the problem of using song lyrics not in the public domain in their stories.
Asking Permission to Use Lyrics in Your Fiction
Obtaining permission to use song lyrics is the safest route to take before including them in your story, but it is not always the easiest route. It can be difficult to figure out how to contact the publisher or the copyright holder for the lyrics you want to use.
There are at least two groups, ASCAP and BMI, whose job it is to license performance rights to various songs and they may be helpful in identifying the publisher of the lyrics. Performance rights are not what you need, so ASCAP and BMI cannot help you with that, but you can get some useful information there to start your search. Ultimately, it is the owner of the copyright to the lyrics you need to contact, not ASCAP or BMI.
In her book Slammed, Colleen Hoover relies heavily on lyrics from songs written and performed by the Avett Brothers. In interviews that she has given, Ms. Hoover tells us that she reached out to the Avett Brothers and asked their permission to use their song lyrics in her work. She was lucky that she was inspired by the songs of popular artists who are generous with their creativity.
Slammed went on to be an NYT bestseller at a time when the Avett Brothers’ popularity was ramping up. Giving and getting permission seems to have worked out for both the Avett Brothers and Ms. Hoover.
Rather than try to track down and negotiate with the rightsholders to the lyrics yourself, you can use a licensing agency. Agencies have access to proprietary databases of song publishers and their agents. Licensing agents contact the rightsholders on your behalf and secure quotes, or prices, for a license to use lyrics.
When working with a licensing agency, you need to provide them with the exact lines from the song you'd like to include, excerpts of your manuscript where the lyrics appear, and precise details for the number of print, ebook, and audiobooks you intend to publish. Remember that you are not requesting performance rights, so the lyrics in your audiobook must be read, not sung.
Licensing agents handle requests from big players for advertisement, commercial, TV, and movie projects, like this Cadillac commercial using a few seconds from the Ariana Grande, Jessie J, and Nicki Minaj hit Bang, Bang. I've had the occasion to obtain lyrics licenses through agencies on behalf of my clients. It is an expensive undertaking, but they have the connections and can get it done.
Is Using Lyrics in Your Fiction Fair Use?
Remember that attribution, or giving credit to the copyright holder, is not permission. If you don’t have permission to use the lyrics and the lyrics are not in the public domain then you must rely on the legal doctrine of fair use. Fair use is an exception to the rule that you cannot use someone else’s creative work in your own work—if you are using their work in a “transformative” way and for certain purposes.
One of the factors considered in the fair use analysis is how much of the underlying work you are using. The problem with relying on fair use in the context of song lyrics is that lyrics are so short that any use of them is considered to be using too much to be fair. (It's the same with poems, by the way.)
Even though there is a strong argument that use of lyrics in fiction is fair use because it may be transformative, you do not want to be a test case on the issue. It’s unlikely that a court will find fair use with song lyrics in your fiction which means a long and expensive slog through the appeals process.
Avoid Using Lyrics, But Still Add the Emotion
A great example of this technique is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Music is threaded in, around, and throughout this story, but lyrics are never quoted. For instance, Charlie makes Patrick a mix tape as a Secret Santa gift. He lists the names of the songs and the groups who sing them, but not the words. (Chapter 2).
After listing the songs on the B side of the mix tape, Charlie describes the feelings he wants to inspire in Patrick when Patrick listens to it, “I hope it’s the kind of second side that he can listen to whenever he drives alone and feel like he belongs to something whenever he’s sad.”
Charlie goes on to say, “. . . in the palm of my hand, there was this one tape that had all of these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness.” Chbosky is able to capture the full power of the music by listing the songs and describing the feelings. This is a powerful device to overcome the limitations imposed by copyright protection on lyrics.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is another excellent example of using song titles and the artist’s name to evoke a sense of place and atmosphere. Ready Player One is filled with pop culture references from the ‘80’s from classic video games to popular television shows to rock albums including both descriptions of the art and the music.
Throughout the entire novel, the author never directly quotes the lyrics of a song—with one exception. In chapter 7, Parzival refers to, “the lyrics to an all old Schoolhouse Rock! song stuck in [his] head: ‘to run, to go, to get, to give. Verb! You’re what’s happenin’!’”
In the acknowledgements section of his book, Cline doesn’t mention having permission to use these lyrics from Schoolhouse Rock! The lyrics to the song aren’t in the public domain and, as we’ve seen, fair use doesn’t apply to song lyrics.
I puzzled over how Cline could quote these lyrics verbatim without infringing copyright. My speculation is that Schoolhouse Rock! is considered a TV show and its copyright registration is not for song lyrics. If that’s the case, using that snippet of what is really dialogue from a 20-minute television show could be considered fair use.
Permission or public domain are what will protect you from claims of infringement if you want to include lyrics in your fiction because fair use is not going to help you. By being able to use the titles of songs, the creative solution is to evoke the emotion of the song by naming it and the artist and describing the feelings you want your reader to experience.
Using Lyrics in Your Fiction: an Infographic
A version of this post originally appeared on the blog Better Novel Project which has sadly been taken down. The creator of Better Novel Project, Christine, doodled this infographic to illustrate the decision path for using lyrics in your novel. She has given me permission to reproduce it here.
It is an excellent article. I am writing an educational series. May call on you
down the road for feedback.
Ms. Sharon Culmer
I’m writing a fiction novel and one of the characters sings. However I have only used the title of the songs and no lyrics. Do I still need to see about obtaining permission to use them?
You do not need permission to use the title of the songs or the names of the groups/singers. Permission is needed when you use the lyrics in your story.
Thank you Kathryn
That was an excellent – since very informative, article. Thanks for including basically everything that is vital to know about the topic.
What about if you use one line of a song lyric but change the rest of it? What if you change a word or two in the lyric? You don’t use the lyrics word for word but make some changes? Would even a slight change make it ok?
Whether your use of lyrics is fair or an infringement cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. You need to apply the four fair use factors: https://creativelawcenter.com/fair-use-using-others-creative-work/
My question does not pertain to using song lyrics, but rather a scenario in which a writer might wish to write a work of fiction based upon a song. Of course, song lyrics are protected by copyright, and one cannot copyright a title. But, what about a work of fiction inspired by a song, its characters, and location? For example, if a writer wrote a short story based on, say, the Eagles’ Hotel California, could they use the imagery suggested in the song, without quoting any lyrics? Or perhaps Steve Earl’s Copperhead Road. Could the character be the son of a moonshiner, also having the name John Lee Pettimore, as in the song, without infringing upon copyright? This is a gray area, and I have yet to find an answer.
Writing a story inspired by the storyline in a song sounds like it could be a new creative expression and not an infringement. You’re not going to find a straight answer because it is a fact-based question. You need to do a fair use analysis.