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Good To Know

Yeah Yeah Yeah: Rights to Song Lyrics

(new edit of a 2013 blog - as I'm doing a final edit on Dinner at Marshall Fields)

I entered the world of usage of song lyrics in a novel as a babe in the musical woods. Could they object to a line or two? Or even a whole stanza? I couldn't imagine why, and in fact really didn't give it a thought when I started writing Dinner at Marshall Fields.

As a historical writer who put together a huge nonfiction book complete with quotes and photos, many of which need permission or at least complete footnoting, I'm not sure why this would escape my attention. Songs are still an artist's creation, even if the artist doesn't always retain their own copyright. But since I lift quotes from other works, with proper recognition, why couldn't I do that to songs? Well, for one thing, if you use more than a small percentage of an author's work, they could come after you for payment. So okay, what about just a line? And who do I ask?

That's the rub. I didn't have to ask John Lennon's widow for right to quote a few of his lyrics in my book. I had to ask Sony/ATV Music, who owns the Michael Jackson estate. My publisher, Arline Chase of Write Words, Inc., told me of an author who talked to John Denver personally, who said he'd be honored to have her refer to his song, and so she did, only to find out he didn't own the rights.

I find this process to be quite arbitrary. For one thing, I am not playing the song without permission on a radio statio, and making money. Or recording the song and claiming it as my own. Do DJs who play at weddings have to get permission for every song they play? Why not? They're making money. I'm going to ask next chance I get, unless someone here knows the answer and can fill me in. I am merely quoting a few lines of lyrics, by far not the whole song, and giving proper credit. What is the problem?

The problem is someone wants money. And it's often not the person who created the piece at all. We're not paying for the literary endeavor, but yes, in a round-about way we are, because they had to sell their rights and did so, we might expect, willingly for some monetary need.

But these creative artists feel they should get something off my work, if it includes a clever reference to theirs. They might make money off my reference if it gains them another fan through that reference -- someone who finds a quoted lyric intriguing, or likes the way I used it. But aren't the lyrics you find online owned by someone who paid to own them, not the one who wrote them? Same difference. No matter who owns the rights, they stand to make money on them through my reference, even if just a digitized copy sells.

How does Amazon do it? I could pay for a music subscription and get to listen to all kinds of music, most of which I'm sure I wouldn't like. Do they buy a blanket approach?

Odd business, music.

I don't know all the details as to why the Beatles would have sold their copyrights to Michael Jackson in the first place. Were they not making enough money from the songs anymore? And I'm just talking about the use of a few lyrics, not the whole song. You can find complete lyrics online to just about any song you want. That enables you to sing the song out loud, and you can do that karaoke without paying a fee, as long as you don't make money doing it. Or don't get caught making money on it.

Why would I begrudge these copyright owners a use fee for these lyrics? Few writers, unless they're of the Stephen King category (and I bet even he wouldn't attempt to write a novel that involves the evolution of music from the '40s to the '60s) can afford to pay an exorbitant licensing fee.

Even with my nonfiction, I only paid for a few photos I felt it had to have. Otherwise, I sought out the free use ones, and got permission wherever I could. In a few instances, I couldn't find the permission holder and published them anyway. You have to take a chance in this business sometimes.

So my first stop is to find out how much a few lines of lyrics will cost me, and then let the publisher decide if they think they are worth being used in the book. Because I do not want to self-publish anymore (I'll save that for my death bed). I figured this kind of research should be up to me, because it might be hard to find a publisher if I haven't done this research. They might be leery of any book that relies on music lyrics to help tell its tale.

And that could be the problem I've had with submissions. So finally I cut the lyrics down to just the title. Which is a shame, because some will not be aware of how well that song fit the situation. In "Legend of a Kiowa Son" I used Shakespeare quotes. That's fun, and no copyright to worry about! But it wouldn't fit here, because Holly Day was a singer in the 40s, while the story is set in '68. In some places I used made-up lyrics for her. (See cover and blurb for novel somewhere on my website.)

I have purchased rights in the past. I paid $200 for a map that's in my Pensaukee environmental nonfiction, now making the circuits. Another $200 for one I used in the Civil War book. I became the only authorized Bonanza novelist by gaining permission to publish two novels direct from creator and producer of the series, David Dortort—permission that some people to this day believe I never got. I didn't pay anything up front, but Bonanza Ventures gets 20% of my net royalties—only 10% until I decided to use the official licensed map on the cover. (It hiked up higher in my 2nd and 3rd editions recently published.)

A major goal for this new novel ws getting the rights to the Beatles song, "In My Life." With an online search and a phone call, I learned that Sony/ATV held the rights. I found an email and they responded promptly with a form to return with the contextual pages of the book where the lyrics would appear.

The form wanted me to name the publisher.

It would appear that this is a job most publishers undertake, but undaunted, I told them I didn't have one but might have to re-do the work if the cost was prohibitive. While waiting for a response, I went through a movie script I'd written and noted that I was using lines from other movies. So in this draft, I removed them, thinking it could be stopping the script from getting noticed. I thought the same could be true for this novel.

Sony/ATV responded later that day, though I wasn't sure they would. They said it would cost me $300. That's not bad, I reasoned. Until I saw the next part. For 500 copies. I thought maybe they missed a couple of zeroes. Okay, so this means they think I'm going to self-publish. And while 60 cents a copy doesn't seem so bad, really, it's only for one song. What if the book needs 20 songs? It can become exorbitant.

In my major nonfiction, back in 2013, I got a publisher and then set out to get all the rights to the photos, before the publisher asked me to because he didn't even read the book before accepting it. In that process I found there were some photos I could do without, many that could be replaced with something that was free, and then the ones I needed to pay for I got the prices so that the publisher could decide if they were worth buying. But I cancelled the contract from lack of work on his part, because I felt he didn't have a clue what to do with all these photos and maps.

I wrote back to Sony/ATV asking for a third option, because the only options they gave was either to pay the amount or remove the lyrics. I told them I just wanted an idea of cost, and that I will keep this form and have a publisher decide if I need the lyrics. Then I went through the book and removed whatever lines weren't needed to tell the story. "Yeah yeah sigh." Well, there's at least one potential lyric problem I solved.

Just mentioning the song title by name, which is legal, had to be enough.

The nice thing is that with lyrics, as with photos, you can say that all attempts were made to find out about licensing, and if they don't ever respond, you can go ahead and use the lyrics.

But keep a paper trail, just in case.

The good thing about working with Sony/ATV is how prompt and reliable they are. She also told me that they approve the context use of the lyrics in my novel, but I still have to pay the licensing fee. At least now I know, and will be careful not to be frivolous with lyrics in a novel that depends a lot on how music changes from the 40s to the 60s.


But something will be lost in the transition, and that's too bad.

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