Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Using Songs In Your Manuscript

some practical information today....

As you know, I write historical fiction. The manuscript I recently finished is about a travelling preacher and his family -- Arkansas, 1957.

There are songs in this manuscript. Lots and lots of songs.

So, I had to research which songs could and could not be used in writing. I thought I would share what I have learned on this subject.

Public Domain

Any songs written before 1922 are in the public domain. As such, you are free to use them in your writing. Performing the songs gets a bit trickier, as artists will often copyright their version of a public domain song. But, we are not singing in our books, so no worries with that. Songs post 1922 and/or under copyright can only be used with the owner's permission.

Where to Start?

It is easiest to go to one of the Public Domain websites like this one here or even this one here. They have lists of songs pre 1922 that are assumed to be in the public domain.

Why do you say assumed?

Well, because you should do more than just look at those sites. It is the first step, but the second is to research the exact year the song was written and originally published. Have that documented source in your research file.

Why does it matter?

Well, for one, you will get sued. Imagine putting a song reference in your book and later getting a 'cease and desist' order. How do you remove a part of the book? You don't. The court can order that your books be pulled from the shelves permanently. Or, they could request payment for use.

Second, it helps when you contact an agent/editor to be able to say "I have researched the songs referenced in this manuscript and confirmed they reside in the public domain." See how smart you will sound? They'll be dying to work with someone as professional as your sweet self.

What about just mentioning an artist/ song title?

Well, there are mixed schools of thought on this. The majority of performers don't mind you mentioning that your character is listening to their music. You just have to capitalize and give appropriate credit. It gets a little trickier once you start quoting song lyrics. Personally, I would shy away from doing it because it has the potential to add complication to your work.

What the US Copyright Office has to say

"Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances."

What is fair use? Unfortunately, that is not cut and dry. I venture to say use in a novel would not likely fall under 'fair use'.

What about quoting or referencing books?

This is a whole separate post that I will work on for another time.

Questions: Do you ever use song lyrics in your writing? Were you aware of the public domain limitations?



Lady Glamis said...

I was wondering about this as I read your novel and was going to ask you about it. This is some great information, thank you! So how does this work with quoting other pieces of literature and poetry, as well? Do you know?

Danyelle said...

I generally don't. Partly because it's never come up with my characters, and partly because of how sticky it can be if you don't do it correctly.

Joyce Wolfley said...

Wow. What great info...makes me afraid to use songs though. Maybe I'll just use the ones my grandpa made up and call it good. :)

Michelle said...

Lady Glamis, I think it does apply to other literature and poetry. Copyrights are for a limited period of time, and once they expire, the work becomes public domain. I'd double check, though.

Public Domain is useful in other ways as well. Did you know that there are free downloadable audiobooks of books that are public domain? So if you missed out on some of the classics, as most of us have, you can get them online and listen to them through your computer. Librivox.org has a bunch of titles.

Tess said...

Great comment and information, Michelle. Those free audiobooks are cool - I've got a few.

Glam - Actually, the rules for printed material (books, etc) are slightly different. I am planning a separate post on them in a little bit. The renewal of copyright for songs v. other printed material are actually different laws.

Danyelle and Joyce - better safe (or super careful) than sorry, I agree :)

Martin Willoughby said...

I've always avoided using song lyrics because of this issue. I'd rather make up my own lyrics anyway.

Lisa and Laura said...

Because we write contemporary books we actually try to stay away from songs and lyrics. We don't want to date the work.

BUT we were doing research on all of this for our website because we have background music on the site. I guess the good news there is that if we ever get a cease and desist it's very easy to take down the song. Not so much if you've got it in 100,000 copies of your book.

Liana Brooks said...

If I do reference a song it's by genre and theme (i.e. an upbeat song about love gone wrong) rather than by title an artist. Singers are too picky in general and listing a song title dates the book.

If I say the character is dancing to super-popular Song X... well, what happens in two years when the book hits the shelves and Song X is a forgotten embarrassment because the cool new thing is Music Z?

Publishing moves at a glacial speed and I don't want my manuscript to be outdated before it's even published.

Scott said...

I mention songs in my writing. Once upon a time, I used lyrics as well until I learned that was a 'sticky wicket', so I stopped. As for mentioning actual songs, i.e., a character listening to one on an IPod, I go for it, since the songlist on my IPod ranges from the GrassRoots (hey, my older sisters listened to them and they have some great songs) to Natasha Bedingfield. Oh, then there's Kate Bush, Diana Ross, Kristine W, Cher, Celine Dion, Neil Diamond, the Pogues, Depeche Mode, Erasure, some jazz, Celtic music . . . and the list goes on and on and on.

Now, music can 'date' a manuscript if said character is listening to the radio . . . unless it's satellite radio and then the options are wide open. I personally only listen to satellite radio - one station, all the time, with a change on a rare occassion. So, mentioning an actual song from a few years ago is definitely plausible with my current writing projects and works for me, in the instance/situation of my characters, but could be problematic in other situations.

Lastly, I really hate (though I understand why) I have to get an artist's permission to use lyrics. There's one key scenes were lyrics are interspersed throughout a section of the book. The lyrics really, really, make the scene. SIGH. Oh well, such is life.

Great post, Tess.

Jennifer Shirk said...

I'm very aware of the copyright issues, so I've never wanted to take any chances with having any kind of lyrics in my manuscripts. But I'm the paranoid sort. :)

Tess said...

Martin - good call. I do have one original song in my ms..it's kind of fun to make up your own lyrics.

Lisa and Laura - I don't know about websites. I think if you own the song (meaning if you purchased it through Napster or Itunes, you can use it....you just have to have the little music box icon w/ the artist name/song title.) Check out Wendy's site cuz she does this and I think it is kosher and fine.

Liana - good point. With historical pieces, it can add....contemporary pieces you have to be more aware of those issues.

Scott - you stole my playlist, dude!!! Seriously, Erasure AND Neil Diamond AND Natasha Bedingfield? Me, too. Just add the Temptations in and I'm good to go.

And, I love that a character can have music be one of their 'tells'. You're right, if it is not the radio...it doesn't date the piece. And, check out those PD websites. Could an old classic song (you'd be surprised at how many are in the pd) fit into your scene instead???

Tess said...

Jennifer - don't be afraid. Check out the public domain list. They have TONS of really great old classics that may be great developmental tells for your characters.

Janna Qualman said...

Very interesting! I never knew one should be so conscious about all this. Thanks!

Jill Kemerer said...

Learned something new! Thanks

Cindy said...

Tess, thanks for the info. I had my MC in my last book singing along to an oldies song. I read somewhere, I think in a post by Rachelle Gardner? that this could be a no-no. So I had to take it out. This was interesting. I can't wait for your post on books. I reference books and specific lines a lot!

Davin Malasarn said...

I was aware of these laws, but I didn't know them specifically. Thanks a lot for the cut off details and the links! Sadly, I don't think I've ever used song lyrics in my writing. I think I frustrated myself because I couldn't ever express the melodies that accompanied the songs. Using lyrics makes a lot more sense to me when you are writing historical fiction.

Great post!

Stephanie said...

Thanks! I think I need to make some changes....

Charlie said...

As a songwriter, I've learned a lot about the copyright laws (in the U.S.) so I understand your concerns. I think you're right on point.

One thing I did include in my book was a reference to a real pianist. He didn't say anything but one of my characters performed with him.

That's ok too. (assuming you're not libeling him)

Tess said...

Charlie - a fellow composer??? I love it.

Stephanie - oh, no!

Davin - how very interesting. I guess there is a good point in losing some depth to the music by only having the lyrics. I only hope my readers will know the songs and sing them in their heads...

Cindy - I am working on that literature used in literature post and will have it up in a few days. It's interesting stuff!!

Jill and Janna - thanks for the comments. glad it was of some help.

Robyn said...

Tess, I wondered about this. Thanks for posting. Now at least I'm informed should it come up in one of my stories. It did come up in one of my picture books and I deleted it because I didn't know what to do. Thanks again! :)

Crystal said...

Thanks fr this post, Tess! As you know, I'm working on a historical fiction novel, too, and I DID in fact take a chance (without really researching) and include lyrics from an old hymn. I searchd the public domain link you listed here & found that it was published in 1861. So I'm breathing a little easier now! Thanks! :)