Using lyrics or an epigraph in your book? Curious about copyright?

by | May 25, 2012 | Blog, Publishing | 72 comments

How do I obtain permission to reproduce song lyrics in my novel?

Two of my clients have been surprised recently to learn that they are responsible for obtaining permission to reproduce song lyrics in their respective novels. I’m sorry to break it to you, authors, but if you want to reproduce anything by another artist in your book – a painting, a few lines from a poem, song lyrics, a photograph – you have to identify who owns the copyright and contact that person (often a company or a literary estate) for permission to do so.

I won’t sugarcoat it: the process is a total drag, so the sooner you get on to it, the better. There are also some common problems that arise during the permission-seeking process that I’ll get to in a minute. But first …

Why is it the author’s responsibility?
When you sign a publishing agreement, you warrant to the publisher several things, among them (and often the first thing listed) that the Work is original, written by you, and that it does not infringe any existing copyright. Clearly, the lyrics from a song you did not write yourself must be someone else’s copyright, so you need to obtain permission to reproduce those lyrics in the Work.

When reading one client’s manuscript, I saw that the author not only reproduced the lyrics from one particular song, but repeated one or two lines through the novel as a motif. In this case, it’s essential to obtain permission immediately in case the copyright holder refuses the request, or (worse?) says Yes, but here’s our fee for doing so.

With my other client, I must confess that I was surprised and disappointed that her publisher insisted on her obtaining copyright permissions. I felt her references to lyrics were so slight – less than eight words in each instance – that her use would have fallen within the doctrine of fair use.  But publishers are behaving like teenagers these days, worrying about every tiny little thing in order not to attract the wrong kind of attention. Such as being sued by a copyright holder who’s had a tough time of it in the economic downturn and is looking for some free money.

Publishing contract clauses about copyright material
In the contract you sign with your publisher, there are usually a few clauses about the delivery of the Work. One of them deals with material appearing in the Work for which you, the author, do not own copyright. Examples of relevant wording from recent Australian publishing contracts I’ve seen:

For any part of the Work for which the copyright is not its own the Author shall, at his own expense, obtain written permission for the use of that part within the Work from the owners of the respective copyrights, and supply that permission to the publishers …

The Author shall, at the Author’s own expense, obtain all necessary permissions for inclusion in the Work of any copyright material appearing in the Work and for the reproduction of such material for all editions of the Work throughout the Territory…

Boring! So how do I go about obtaining copyright permission?
In a word, Google. Look hard enough and you’ll find scraps of information relating to copyright, usually where you see the (c) sign. If you’re quoting from a book, the imprint page towards the front should have the relevant contact details. For song lyrics, all music publishers and songwriters must belong to one of www.ascap.comwww.bmi.com and www.sesac.com. Here’s a detailed blogpost about searching those websites.

Here’s what you do. You write a letter or an email to the publisher/copyright holder that explains:

  • you are the author of a work named TITLE to be published WHEN by PUBLISHER/S (full name/s and address/es of publisher/s) in TERRITORY (eg Australia and New Zealand, or North America including Canada, or all Commonwealth territories excluding Australia) and stating the PRINT RUN if possible (a low print run will encourage many copyright holders not to charge you a fee*)
  • you are seeking permission to reproduce the following lyrics from SONG by SONGWRITER
  • you quote the exact usage of the lyrics, giving enough context for the copyright holder to determine whether or not it’s a reasonable and “safe” request for them to approve.

*You should be prepared for the copyright holder to ask you to pay a fee.

Best-case scenario: The copyright holder will grant your request without any charge, and provide the wording for which you acknowledge permission in the acknowledgments or on the imprint page.

Worst-case scenario: The copyright holder will refuse your request or charge such an outrageously high fee that you’ll have to ditch the lyrics or poetry or whatever it was that you wanted to use in the first place.

What if I don’t hear back?
Your initial email or letter is likely to get bounced around from person to person within the copyright-holding organisation. Sometimes you will receive an email asking you to forward your request to another person or organisation. This can go on for some time and sometimes for so long that it will test your enthusiasm for using the lyrics/photograph/verse that is the subject of your request.

It’s possible (and not uncommon) that you will not hear back from the copyright holder at all. As long as you have evidence that you legitimately sought their permission, you can go ahead with your original plan to include the copyright material, making sure that on the imprint page of your book it states words to the effect that “all reasonable efforts have been made to contact the copyright holders” and that anyone who believes their copyright to be infringed is welcome to contact the publisher. Your publisher is likely to have precedent wording.

Have I forgotten anything?
I hope this post is helpful to you. If you have other questions about copyright or anything you’re struggling with in your own work (fiction or nonfiction), I would love to hear from you, so please leave me a comment below.

Check out what my clients are saying…

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