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Name That Tune – But Don’t Quote the Lyrics

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By: Deborah Brewer –

Songs and poems are very much a part of our lives, so it’s little wonder we might want to include inspirational songs in our stories. Their words are part of our culture; they resonate in our hearts.

May you name that inspiring tune in your story? Yes, you may. Titles cannot be copyrighted in the United States. Over a dozen popular songs have been titled “I Want You” and “Angel.” What you can’t do is quote the lyrics. It’s not the name of a work, but its execution that is eligible for copyright. If you copy even a single line lyric without permission you may open yourself to accusations of plagiarism.

Copyright Law

The Copyright law of the United States (Title 17) grants exclusive rights to copyright holders to prepare derivative works based on the original. Among the works eligible for copyright are musical works, including any accompanying words, and all versions of a written work.

The fair use exemption allows use of a portion of a work for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research, without permission from the author. This exemption does not include use in artistic works.

The exact “amount and substantiality of the portion” one might use from a copyrighted work for exempted uses is not set forth in the law. As poems and songs generally have much lower word counts than a novel or non-fiction book, a single line’s percentage of the whole is much higher in the former than in the latter. Thus, some suggest one can quote 10% of a work, which might amount to one line of a song or couple of pages from a full-length book. But, as the law also takes into account whether the use was commercial or not, the nature of the work, and the effect of the use on the market value of the copyrighted work, one can’t know for certain what is permissible until they’ve battled it out in court. But again, this exemption is for use in teaching, reporting, criticism and the like, not in creative works. I could quote a few words of someone’s lyric here in this blog, but not in one of my stories.

Your Story is More Than its Inspiration

It’s disappointing to have a great story, inspired by a great song, and not be able to quote any of the song’s lines. “The two are intertwined,” an author might say. “The story is nothing without its inspiration.” It’s worthwhile asking whether these assessments are true. While the song may have inspired the story, the story, once developed, will become more than its originating epiphany. If it isn’t more, then it is likely fan fiction or a derivative work, and well, when it comes to copyright, that’s the point. Readers, critics, teachers, and the like are invited to make further use of other peoples’ creative work. Authors of fiction are obligated to write their own.

Using a Music Reference in Your Work

Referencing a real song title is a great way to highlight the time period and social milieu in which your story takes place. It could be a key to understanding a character’s state of mind. The lyric, if you have obtained permission to use it or it is old enough to be in the public domain, might serve as an epigraph to set a story’s theme or mood. But merely including the line in your story won’t tell the reader everything they need to know. How does the character feel about this song? What memories are attached to it, what meaning?

A writer can’t assume that every reader has had the same experience with a song as they have. One reader may hate a song on account of it’s being the favorite of an ex-lover. Another might associate the same song with the best summer of their life. Yet another might not have heard the song at all. There are a great many songs in the world. Don’t count on a song title, or even a lyric, as a short cut to communication. You will still need to show how the work fits into your character’s point of view.

Writing an Original Song for Your Story

Have you contemplated writing your own songs for your stories? I wrote the following ditty, a manic rant from the point of view of my villain, to use as an epitaph for an unfinished mystery set in the 1890s. I love the song, but as I wouldn’t want a reader to mistake my heroine’s gallant, poetry writing, love interest as the ‘author,’ I’ve decided to not to use it in the novel.

Murder is Ditty Work

There’s a bitter dose of poison

In your dainty little cup.

Drink it up, my pretty. Drink it up.

 

You’ve been giving me a headache,

But I say, “Enough’s enough.”

Bon Voyage, my darling. Your time’s up.

 

How I’ll thrill to know you’ve fallen

On my malice having supped.

Drink it now, my lovely.

Good-bye, my little darling.

Take up the pretty chalice—drain the cup!

 

—Malice Aforethought

The PPW 2022 anthology, Dream, which I had the privilege to partially edit, includes several stories with references to songs. Cepa Onion, the author of “Dream Crush,” wrote poignant, angsty songs for her teenaged protagonist to share with a friend and Barbara Preslier’s wry, twenty-something heroine in “Augmented Dreams” sings a playful song of her own device. In contrast Rick Duffy, the author of “The Boundless Dream,” deftly wove a reference to a classic pop song into his story without using any of the lyrics.

Requesting Permission to Use a Lyric Under Copyright

All this considered, if you feel you must use a bit of someone else’s copyrighted lyric in a story, you can write to the copyright holder for permission to use it in your work. Jane Friedman, an author business expert, offers her advice for writing a request for permission in the article linked here. https://www.janefriedman.com/sample-permission-letter/

For further reading:

Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright
Most Common Song Titles of All Time


Deborah Brewer, HeadshotDeborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology,  Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.