Thursday, September 1, 2011

Song Lyrics - question

Question: People are saying I can't use song lyrics in my book. My character is a singer in a band. Help!

Answer: You can only use them if you write them yourself. Not if they were written and copyrighted by another writer.

Did you write them yourself? It's easy to do. Pick a melody, say "Greensleeves" and write new lyrics for it. Never tell anyone the name of the melody you use. The rhythm will be right for a song and that's all that counts. That's a perfectly legal way to go!

Some songs are in the public domain (all those written before 1917, and can be freely used) so if someone wants to sing Old MacDonald's Farm or the Star-Spangled Banner, that's okay. But you must have proof of when it was written. Don't assume if you saw a charcter in a period film sing it, that it was popular back when the film was set.

If someone else wrote the song, you have to get the song PUBLISHER's written permission to use the words? The song writer does not have sole copyright and so he or she cannot give permission to use it. DO NOT expect your publisher (at least not this one) to pay thousands of dollars to the song's publisher to use them. They are copyrighted material and so are illegal to use without permission.

Publishers will, sometimes, grant such permission without cost, to a writer who asks to use them in an "as yet unpublished" novel. If they don't recognize the name of the author, they will assume it will remain unpublished. They will, however, always seek to charge publishing companies, however small....

Songs are so short that there is no "fair use" standard for them at all. You can use the title as a title cannot be copyrighted and you can paraphrase the lyrics -- as in "On the radio Kris Kristofferson was singing about being busted flat and waiting for a train in Baton Rouge," but you cannot directly quote from the song itself.

A song publisher (and the Musician's Union) will be quick to sue and they have plenty of pocket money to do so.

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