The words to songs, whether real or made up, can often add to the drama of a fictional piece of work.
In Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he adds to the meaning of the work by quoting lyrics from The Beatles “Yesterday”.
And herein lies the problem…
“Fair use” is the legal term used for using the copyrighted material of others in your own work without permission from the owner.
“Hold on there, Kiddo.”
While fair use laws allow writers of non-fiction to reference the words to songs in their books, fair use does not extend to works of fiction.
Even if it did the difference between what is considered fair use and what is not is, sometimes, very difficult to determine.
There is no set amount of words or lines you may use, this would be determined by defending your law suit. And, you can still be prosecuted if you acknowledge the source but don’t obtain permission.
This means that if you want to use the lyrics of a song that is not in the public domain, songs written after 1921, you must request the privilege of using words to songs in your novel.
“Hmm. OK, if I have to. So who do I ask for permission?”
This Is Where The Plot Thickens
You would think that the person who wrote the song would own the rights. Wouldn’t you?
But, that is not necessarily the case.
You see, the rights to songs are commodities. They are bought and sold all the time.
Remember, the fallout between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson when Jackson scooped up a bunch of Beatles songs?
So, just because someone wrote the song doesn’t mean they own it. Consequently, it can be very difficult to locate the current owner of a song’s lyrics.
Then, if you are able to get permission, those words to songs cost money. Of course it depends on the song and who owns the rights but I have heard stories of lyrics costing hundreds of dollars for a just a few lines.
“A few hundred dollars for a couple of lines?”
“But, don’t they want the free advertising?”
“They want the… hmm, let’s see… oh yeah, they want the money.”
“So what am I to do?”
This Leads Us To Two Different Options
You can make up the lyrics of a non-existent song. Depending on who you are and what you are writing this may or may not be a feasible option.
Or, you can use song lyrics that are within the public domain .
Here are a few links to some books of lyrics that are well within the public domain.
- Lyrics from the Song-Books of the Elizabethan Age
- Victorian Songs Lyrics of the Affections and Nature
- The Golden Treasury of American Songs and Lyrics
- The Good Old Songs We Used to Sing, ’61 to ’65
- India’s Love Lyrics
- Russian Lyrics
I know, I know. It seems like a lot of hassle for such a little thing.
But, now you know and forewarned is forearmed.