As a writer, I am naturally drawn to words. And some of my favorite words come from music… song lyrics. Song lyrics can take me back in time, take me to another place, and invoke emotion in so many ways.
As I work on my novels, I find myself itching to use certain song lyrics to convey a certain feeling or to set a scene for my characters. Maybe you find yourself wanting to do the same. So how can we, as writers, use someone else’s copyrighted material in our works?
I’ll work you through the process. First and foremost, you can use song titles in your published works without concern. Song titles (and movie titles, for that matter) are not copyrighted material.
For lyrics, you need to check if the song is still under copyright protection. You can visit www.copyright.gov to verify. This site lists all copyright records dating back to 1978. If you plan to use lyrics from a song written prior to 1978, you will need to contact the U.S. Copyright Office to have the records checked; this may involve a fee.
Another method for finding the owner of a copyright is to contact one or both of the major music performance rights organizations, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) or the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). While these organizations do not grant permission for use of lyrics, they can help you find the publisher of the song you wish to use.
Keep in mind that most songwriters do not handle the licensing of their music. The assign or license their songs to music publishers who then manage the process and collect royalties.
Once you determine who owns the rights to the song, you MUST ask for permission. You may find that the rights owner says sure, no problem. You may be denied the rights and will have to remove the lyrics from your book. Or you may be charged a fee, which could range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. The price is completely up to the music publisher.
There are two other resources that may be helpful in your search to locate the rights owner: Hal Leonard Corporation and Alfred Music Publishing. They represent thousands of artists and songwriters. Both websites offer search capabilities; you may be able to find the song you want to include in your novel. There is no cost to email either company or to fill out their online forms asking for permission.
Here is the information you will need to include on the forms:
If it turns out you need to send a letter to the rights owner, here is a sample letter you could use:
Dear _______ [the music publisher or other rights holder]:
I am writing to ask permission to reprint _______ [identify actual lyrics, song and songwriter(s)] on a non-exclusive basis in _______ [describe intended use, such as within text of book, on a website and/or blog post, etc.].
I believe that you are the holder or administrator/publisher of the copyright in these lyrics. If not, I would greatly appreciate any help you can provide to help me locate the current rights holder or administrator/publisher.
[Describe your project, such as a traditionally published book, self-published book, a memoir, etc. If educational, explain how.]
My first run printing will be _____ copies. /OR/ I will be distributing the print book through a print-on-demand provider. I request permission to print up to _____ books. I will also be distributing an e-book. The anticipated price of the book is $_____ and the price of the e-book will be $_____, although I may discount those prices.
I am distributing the book in English, [mention any other languages] in the world-wide market.
I will also use the lyrics on my website and blog. [Describe current traffic levels.] I do/do not post third-party advertising on my website.
I would use the lyrics starting on _______ [date] with no known end date. I would be happy to provide you copies for approval and upon distribution. Please let me know if you may grant the permissions outlined above as well as the license fees involved.
Thank you for your attention to my request.
[Your name, contact info, website, social media links, and anything else that demonstrates who you are and your vision.]
Best of luck to you in including whatever song lyrics help to make your work that much more meaningful. Music is powerful. Words are powerful. Writers are powerful. LB
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