Better Safe Than Sued: Lyric Legalities

One of the most common issues we advise our clients about is the legality of using lyrics in their writing. Lyrics are extremely tempting to use in books because they set a tone, express a feeling, create atmosphere and convey a message everyone can relate to. But good writing can do the same thing, and you don’t need someone else’s words to do it.

Straight and simple, the fact is this: it’s plagiarism to use copyrighted material in your book, and that includes song lyrics – even just one line of a song. Someone wrote those words and published them, just like authors write and publish books, and they get royalties from them. I’m sure you wouldn’t “borrow” a page from a JK Rowling novel without expecting to get sued, right? Song lyrics are the same thing, only instead of an entire paragraph or page of someone else’s writing, you’re borrowing the equivalent (because songs are shorter) – a line or a stanza.

But wait, this can’t apply to ME
One of the arguments indie authors typically use is, “I’m an indie author, chances are they’ll never see my book.” Well, first of all, today’s indie author can become tomorrow’s in-demand bestseller – it’s happened before.

Second, you never know who’s going to read your book, and you don’t know who knows whom, so there’s always a chance that the copyright holder will hear about your infringement…and sometimes there’s more than one copyright holder.

But THEY did it!
Another argument from indie authors is, “But other people do it. I’ve seen it in books before.” If you’ve seen it in a traditionally published book, then the publishing company got the copyright information they needed and did whatever was necessary to use the lyrics, possibly including paying for permissions. You won’t necessarily find a trace in the book of how they acquired the rights to the lyrics – it all depends on the instructions from the copyright holder. If you’ve seen it in an indie book, then more than likely they’ve been lucky…so far.

How do you know if a song is under copyright protection?
If it was published after 1978, you can go to www.copyright.gov to find out, otherwise you should check with either the US Copyright Office, Broadcast Music, Inc. or the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Lyrics that are in the public domain, which typically include those published before 1923, are no longer under copyright unless someone has purchased the rights to them. Never assume that lyrics are free from copyright just because they’re old.

Getting permission from a song’s copyright holder can be tough; the copyright holder can be the song writer, publisher, record label, an estate…there’s any number of people or companies that can hold the rights to lyrics. Not only can it be difficult, but it can also be quite pricey, which typically isn’t worth it. (Although there are some copyright holders who will allow writers to use their lyrics in exchange for credit and/or links to their music, giving credit never overrides permission.)

So what’s a better way?
Easy – write your own lyrics. You’re a writer, not a composer, you say? Well that’s okay because you don’t have to worry about your lyrics fitting into a tune. Many indie authors have opted on the side of safety and written their own lyrics for their books. You can write words with the same meaning, feeling and to portray the same ambiance as the lyrics you want to use, but these will be your own and safe from a copyright infringement suit.

Still considering using lyrics or have some questions? Here are a few sites where you can get more information:

Galley Cat’s Book Biz
Writer’s Digest
Jane Friedman

Related post: Celebrities Are Off Limits. Here’s Why.

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