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Can You Include Song Lyrics in Your Book?

recordplayerHave you ever quoted song lyrics in your book? Music can set the mood, evoke a certain setting or channel a particular emotion.

However, writers need to be aware of copyright issues surrounding music in books. We caught up with Copyright Clearance Center‘s author and creator relations director Christopher Kenneally, discovering the key questions authors should ask before including a song. Kenneally explained:

Consider not quoting the song. Lyrics, like all creative expression, are copyrighted. Copyright gives the author or creator the exclusive right to republication of the work. Any writer who wishes to quote lyrics, or for that matter, passages from another’s book, must obtain permission first. It’s probably worth asking how necessary or vital such quotation is to any particular creative work.

Kenneally added:

If it’s used to set a mood or establish a period, it’s easy enough to refer to song titles, which, under U.S. law, are not copyrighted. However, some novelists and short story writers – Ann Beattie is perhaps the most famous example – find it essential to quote from song lyrics as a way of establishing credible characters or settings.

We posed the same question about self-published books, and received this answer:

Just because you’ve made yourself the publisher, doesn’t mean you have the right to make up your own copyright law. Self-publishing has, in many respects, freed authors to express themselves as they wish. But it has also added greatly to their responsibilities. Today, self-published authors must not only write, but also market, sell and obtain rights permissions.

Finally, Kenneally explained the steps authors need to take to get permission to use song lyrics:

For any permission request, the first step is to identify the copyright holder. This is not as easy as it sounds. Look for the copyright symbol on the CD sleeve and the name of the publisher. However, in an increasingly digital world where downloads are more common, this sort of “metadata” is not always immediately available.

If you contact the publisher, don’t expect a fast reply. He or she will usually need to contact several different rightsholders who may be on tour or (as it happens in rock) have recently climbed the stairway to heaven. Do expect that for all but the most obscure artist, the reuse fees may be significant. If you run into a roadblock, there are organizations that will provide assistance. Such “content management organizations” include ASCAP, BMI, as well as Copyright Clearance Center.

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