Music touches us at a deep level. When you turn on a favourite song, your head will bob up and down, your feet will start to tap, your heart rate will speed up a bit. These can be somewhat involuntary responses. Music causes us to feel a range of emotions, both positive and negative. One of the reasons for this is that, as science has shown, music is indelibly connected to memory. Most of us have probably had the experience where we heard a song and were instantly transported back to a particular moment in time—that memory could be decades in the past, and we’ll remember it with stunning recall.
(Unfortunately, the powerful effects of music on the brain aren’t quite universal. If you’re one of those rare people who experience precisely zero excitement about any music whatsoever and have never understood what all the fuss is about, it might not be your fault. Maybe you have specific musical anhedonia. If so, my condolences.)
Anyway! Back to my point: most of us love music, and music in turn connects us to touchstones in our lives, serving as a kind of roadmap to our most important experiences.
So it’s no surprise that music comes up so often in writing—particular in non-fiction. When an author is putting together a memoir and going back through their memories, they inevitably think of certain songs that were important to them at certain points in their life. It’s natural to want to include those songs in the book, to help give the reader a more complete picture of what was going on in their life, their environment, their relationships.
Bad news, though. Although it makes perfect sense to want to include these songs, chances are you really shouldn’t.
Let’s take a moment to review the legal concept of fair use. Basically, it means that you can include excerpts of other writing in your work as long as those excerpts are reasonably short and you give credit where credit is due. So you can use a line from a movie, a paragraph from a favourite book, or a great quote that a famous person once said. No problem. All you need is an appropriate citation.
When it comes to song lyrics, however, there is a problem.
The first problematic aspect of quoting lyrics comes from what I just mentioned about excerpts. When you quote a paragraph from a book, what you’re essentially doing is choosing one hundred or so words from a book of tens of thousands of words. Using just a tiny piece is an important aspect of fair use. But when you’re quoting from a song, which is already short to begin with, you run into a problem. After all, even if you only quote one verse, or just the chorus, you’re using a significant portion of the whole song.
In other words, the shorter the work you’re trying to quote from, the dicier it gets to quote from it at all. Intuitively, the same problem arises when you try to quote from a poem.
Added to this is the fact that music copyright holders have developed a reputation for being unusually litigious.
So the smart thing to do, if you absolutely must include lyrics in your book, is to seek permission from the copyright holder. The first hurdle is finding out who actually owns the copyright—because, counterintuitively, it usually isn’t the artist. It’s often a record label, which means you’ll be seeking permission from a corporation, not a person. And this means wading into a pool of bureaucracy.
Once you’ve found out who owns the lyrics, and once you’ve contacted them, you will likely find that you have to purchase a license in order to use the lyrics. If so, read over that license carefully before you pay up.
It’s common for licenses to come with major restrictions. For example, maybe the license will only allow you to print a certain number of copies of your book and no more, and perhaps those books will only be allowed to be sold in one particular country and not in another (confusingly, sometimes different people or organizations own the copyrights to the same song in different territories). This might mean that you won’t be able to offer an ebook, which is a must in today’s digital world.
These restrictions can be crippling. So it’s really important to pay close attention to the fine print.
In short, although the use of a particular song may seem like the most important thing in the world when you’re writing your book, at the end of the day you’ll be better off just leaving it out.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.