Authors have been quoting song lyrics in their books for a very long time. But if you plan to quote a lyric that was written after 1923, you should prepare to do some research — and get out your checkbook — long before releasing your book.
From James Joyce to John Dos Passos to Nick Hornby, authors have been quoting song lyrics in their books for a very long time — and it makes sense; referencing a piece of music in such a direct way can, as a recent article from GalleyCat says, “set the mood, evoke a certain setting, or channel a particular emotion” with a minimum of words.
Why? Because music and lyrics written after 1923 are NOT in the public domain. The songwriters, those songwriters’ estates, and a publishing company or three may all control shares in the piece’s copyright.
The writers and publishers of the lyrics you want to quote are entitled by law to:
- deny you the right to quote the lyrics.
- grant you permission and set the terms for usage.
- ask you to pay them any fee they want for those usages.
- ignore all your requests until you throw your hands up in the air and decide to just invent some song lyrics of your own to fit the scene.
[Note: one additional resource for locating music publishers which Kenneally doesn’t mention is Harry Fox Agency.]
Have you used lyrics in your writing before? Did you clear that usage with the songwriter or music publisher? Let us know about the experience in the comments section below.