I was well into the final version of Baby, It’s You, when I realised that I’d need to seek permission to reproduce a few lines from a song, One Crowded Hour, by Augie March.

When I was telling the guys at work about this, I got a combination of:

‘Really? It’s just a few lines!’

‘Really? I’d operate on the use now and ask for forgiveness later basis!’

I even got the:

‘Really? It’s not like anyone is ever going to read it to know….’ Ouch.

The thing is, if you want to use (commercially) anything by another artist, you have to seek permission to do so. That means discovering who owns the copyright and contacting them to ask permission – and being prepared to pay a fee for the privilege to do so.

When it comes to songs, that’s easier said than done. You might know who has performed it, but who actually wrote it?

The thing is, most performers don’t actually own the rights to their work. Instead those rights are assigned or licensed to their publisher. It’s the music publisher who collects the royalties and arranges the distribution of them. As a result, most songs will belong on one of the following performing rights databases:

You can search by song title, and will get the publishers name and contact details from this. This post has some great information in it and was a wealth of information for me.

What about the concept of fair use, I hear you ask. Despite watching every episode of Rake and The Good Wife, my knowledge of the legal system* is not comprehensive enough for me to risk it – and nor would I want to. Even if you’re just using a single line, it’s common for the music industry to say you need permission.

After all, even though Baby, It’s You was my first book, I was going into this venture with a view of eventually making a living from my writing. I had to, therefore, approach the transaction as as a business would. The way I figured it, to assume I would only sell a handful or a couple of hundred copies of Baby, It’s You would be like planning for failure. What if I sold thousands and then got a cease and desist notice from the publishers? This was one occasion where it could be far cheaper to request permission and pay the probably nominal fee than to deal with the consequences of not doing so.

Most important of all, though, those few lines i wanted to use were someone else’s creative product – and the artist responsible for those few lines deserves to reap the rewards for their work. Would I be happy with someone doing the same to me without permission or credit? No, I wouldn’t.

Song titles are a different matter. Except in a few circumstances, song titles aren’t usually subject to copyright. The official argument is because they are short and don’t represent sufficient originality of thought. How many CDs have you picked up with the same title? Books? Songs? Exactly.

Naturally, though, there are some titles that are iconic enough or long enough or original enough that you’d probably want to check it out first. In fact, to be on the safe side, I’d be checking all of them out anyway– but that’s just me. As an aside, I’m sure I read somewhere about how Taylor Swift placed a copyright on the term “shake it off”… Of course, if could be just an urban myth, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be testing it.**

Anyways, this problem – of obtaining permission – is not restricted to the indie author.

When you sign a publishing contract, most will have something in it stating that the work is entirely yours. The contract may have something in there about whose responsibility it is to seek permission for copyright owned by others. Usually, unless you’re important enough to have minions for this, it falls upon the author to obtain the appropriate ok, although most publishers should be able to assist you with the process.

So, how did I go with my request?

As I said earlier, I was looking to use three lines from One Crowded Hour by Augie March. Through the performing rights database I managed to find the name of their management – who forwarded my request to the publisher.

In my email, I told them:

  • That I was self-publishing a work of fiction
  • That the work would be available digitally on the Amazon and iBooks platforms
  • The lines I was wanting to use
  • I included the passage that the lines were in – for context

I requested they forward the request to the song’s publishers for approval, and also stated that as I had a limited budget, I hoped they’d consider my request for no fee.

They came back and also wanted to know the name of the licensee (that would be me as the author), the estimated RRP, and the number of units I hoped to sell. For this last one, I advised the number I needed to sell in order to break even. (As an aside, consider this one carefully – often there’s a difference between a fee for an estimated 1000 copies versus 100,000 copies.)

Permission was granted – for a cost of $200 – which I thought a tad steep. I was expecting maybe $50, or even $100.

In the end I decided not to include the lines and rewrote the passage. I was already over budget on the project and I don’t think the story suffered at all from the omission.

I’m coming across a similar problem in I Want You Back, but this time I’m choosing to write around the lyrics instead of quoting them. As much as I’d love to include something by Bananarama or Manfred Mann (you’ll need to read it to find out why) I’ll be resisting the temptation.

Have you ever used lyrics in your work? How did you go about seeking permission?

*which is, of course, why you should always seek appropriate qualified legal advice and not rely on posts like these! This post should NOT be relied upon as advice .

** and nor should you. This post should NOT be relied upon as advice . I already said that…right?

About the Author Jo

I write words, I take photos, I look at stars.

12 comments

  1. Pingback: That’s a wrap…
  2. That does seem a bit steep for a small passage! Very informative post. I’ve never used song lyrics in my novels but after seeing the complicated process I think, like you, I’ll avoid using them in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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