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Intellectual Property and Its Uses
Part Three: Lyric Reprint Permissions    

by Lori L. Lake

Lyrics fall under slightly different rules than other written materials. You canít quote song lyrics without securing permission. Most writers do not seem to realize this, and frequently snippets of lyrics are included in books, stories, and novels without the creatorís permission. This could be a very bad mistake if the copyright owner were ever to contest the use of the lyrics and your book was pulled and monetary damages assessed to you.

Because by nature songs are relatively short, there is no "Fair Use" amount of song lyrics that can be used. I read about an author who wanted to quote from Aretha Franklinís song, "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." but was turned down by the music administrator, so he only used one line, "Sock it to me." He was sued and lost, and the penalty was substantial. (Please Note: This article refers to writers of books and stories. I am not referring to "sampling" which is when musicians use a small segment of someone elseís song and include it in theirs.)

There are currently only three performing rights organizations recognized by the U.S. Copyright Office: ACSAP, BMI, and SESAC. (I have included links to each search engine at the end of this article.) These companies administer the rights to the use of musiciansí music and lyrics. If you plan to use lyrics in something you write, particularly if you mean to use them in a thematic way, I strongly advise you to contact the appropriate administrator and get permission in advance. Without the permission, your entire work might have to be rewritten. An example of this occurred when Cate Swannell, author of Heartís Passage, originally titled her novel King of the Beach. In her novel, she referred to Chris Reaís song of the same name, and she used his lyrics as an epigraph. After Swannell was offered a publishing contract, she attempted to obtain permission to use the lyrics. It turned out that Chris Rea doesnít use a music administrator, and after many unsuccessful attempts to reach him, Swannell gave up and had to take out the references to the song. Without the thematic underpinnings of the "King of the Beach" song, there was no use keeping the title the same, so she renamed the book.

Cate Swannell did not have to rename her book; titles (unless trademarked) are not copyrighted. But she chose to change it in keeping with the significant difference the lack of the song made. You can avoid similar difficulties by securing proper permissions in advance.

To date, I have used lyrics from four musicians in my novels. The music of Melissa Etheridge and Shawn Colvin is administered by ASCAP and BMI respectively, and I was required to pay a small fee for the use. The music of local artists Ann Reed and Kristen Schuldt, on the other hand, is administered by them, personally, and they allowed me to use their lyrics without paying a fee because I argued that readers unfamiliar with their music would be introduced to their songs which would benefit them.

One more comment about music: there is a great deal of it in the public domain, meaning that no one owns the copyright any longer. "I Love You Truly," "A Tisket, A Tasket," "Yankee Doodle," "Abide With Me" Ė all of these and thousands more old tunes are free to use as you wish. Itís always nice to acknowledge the composer, but it isnít required. (Iíve included an online public domain site at the conclusion of the article.)

So how long is copyright good? The U.S. Copyright Office indicates that for work created on or after January 1, 1978, the rule of thumb is the authorís life plus an additional 70 years after the authorís death. For works written before 1978, there are some complicated details, but it all boils down to no more than 75 years. So the copyright for "Abide With Me," for instance, which was written in 1861 with music by W.H. Monk and words by H.F. Lytle, long ago moved into the public domain. You can use it all you want, in part or in its entirety.

Final Comments

There is a great deal to know about copyright law, and it is surely useful to learn as much as you can in order to protect your own intellectual property and to make sure you donít infringe on someone elseís. Remember, if thereís a lawsuit about your use of words, music, lyrics, etc., you, the writer, are responsible, not your publisher. A publisher merely provides the packaging for material you have certified is original. If there is a dispute, the publisher isnít the one on the hot seat (they just pull your book) Ė itís you, the author, who gets sued.

Earlier in 2003, a new book came out which is very helpful to writers, Literary Law Guide for Authors: Copyrights, Trademarks, and Trademarks in Plain Language by Tonya Marie Evans & Susan Borden Evans. The information in the book is well-worth your investment. In addition, there are many resources online as listed below.

U.S. Copyright Office

Online Sites with Information re: Intellectual Property

Online Information Sites for Music
Public Domain Music -
© Lori L. Lake, 2003
Author of the novels Different Dress, Gun Shy, Under The Gun, and
Ricochet In Time.
From Lakeís untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori Lake can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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