Music and Lyrics and Permissions, Oh My!

by J.D. Rhoades

It should come as no surprise to readers of my books or of this blog that music has a huge influence on me. The titles of the first three books, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, GOOD DAY IN HELL, and SAFE AND SOUND, come from songs by Steve Earle, The Eagles, and Sheryl Crow, respectively. Favorite tunes are often a springboard for plot points or for whole books, even if the books themselves end up bearing no relation to what actually happens in the song.

Sometimes,  I like to use music directly  in a scene to emphasize or comment on what’s going on.  It’s a cinematic-type effect and a by-product of my own creative process, which often involves seeing the story as a movie playing in my head. Some of my favorite movies use music playing over a scene, or playing or being played by the characters.  Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, for example, would be a lesser movie if it didn’t have that awesome soundtrack serving as a sort of Greek chorus to the action on the screen.

As an author, though, you have to be careful when using music on the page. It can get a little too cutesy if you overuse it, for one thing. But there’s a more practical concern, namely that getting the permission to use a song  lyric can be a major pain in the ass.

One of the many things that surprised me when I got into the business is that it’s the author, not the publisher, who’s responsible for obtaining (and if necessary paying for) the proper permissions. The first question is, when do you need permission do use bits of a song (or quotes from someone else’s poetry or prose)?  While the US Copyright Office insists that “there is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission,” I’d always heard that two lines was pretty safe. More than that, however, and your  publisher may start to get nervous. There’s a concept called “Fair Use” that might save you, but it’s murky and convoluted even by the standards of copyright law, so just assume you’re going to need permission.

So how do you go about getting the permission you need?  First you have to find the song’s publisher. Note that this is  not the record company, at least not much these days. A savvy songwriter will set up his or her own publishing company, which is the actual owner of the rights to the song, and thus the entity entitled to the money from performances and other uses.

There are a couple of ways to find out who the publisher is. One is to look on the album itself. There’s usually  some fine print, somewhere around where you find the list of tracks on the album. It’ll say something like “All songs copyright Insert Name Here Music.” The other, easier way is to do a search on the websites of the two big music licensing services, ASCAP or BMI.  Let’s try to find who owns, say, John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith In Me.” 

We go to the ASCAP site, navigate to the ACE title search page, and plug in the title.

Your title search for “”HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME”” returned 0 results.

Damn. Okay, let’s try BMI.

Whoa. 9 hits.

  1. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 531566
  2. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 531550
  3. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 4945526
4. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 531548
  5. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 531554
  6. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 531560
  7. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 3737905
  8. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 3907859
  9. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME 6794630

Fortunately, the first one gives us:

Songwriter/Composer Current Affiliation CAE/IPI #
HIATT JOHN R BMI 61573778
 
Publishers
UNIVERSAL MUSIC CAREERS BMI 539732230

Clicking through the publisher’s name gives us:

CAE/IPI #: 539732230
Phone: (310) 235-4700
Fax: (310) 235-4907
Contact: UNIVERSAL MUSIC MGB NA LLC
DBA UNIVERSAL MUSIC CAREERS
2440 SEPULVEDA BLVD STE 100
LOS ANGELES, CA 90064-1712
http://www.umusic.com

So then you can call, write, or e-mail, tell them you’d like to use a lyric from one of their artists in a book, and ask to be directed to the proper person. They’ll take it from there.

Steve Earle‘s people were great to work with, and let me use a few lines from “The Devil’s Right Hand” for a pittance.  My experience with “Good Day In Hell” was a little different. It was my screw up, actually: I’d put off tracking down the publishers until the book was already being typeset. I found that, since the song was co-written by Glenn Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles, there were actually two publishers that had the rights: Cass County Music and Red Cloud Music. An e-mail to one, however, got me in touch with a very nice lady who let me know she could handle both. However, she said “The guys almost never give anyone permission to do this.” I began quietly freaking out at this point. After a couple of days, she got back with me and said they wanted to see the passage where the lyric would be used. Heart in throat, I sent her an excerpt, along with a note that contained some of my best groveling.  Within a day she’d e-mailed and said “I caught up with them in two separate airports. They say okay, and all they want you to do is make a small donation to each of their favorite charities.” Which I promptly and gratefully did. Mr. Henley, Mr Frey: thank you from the bottom of my heart. In a profession full of jerks and prima donnas, you guys showed real class.

You may decide after reading this that using someone else’s lyrics is just too much damn trouble. Certainly, after the “Good Day In Hell” scare,  I went back and rewrote the scene in SAFE AND SOUND that contained the Sheryl Crow lyrics, because no way was I going through that kind of fear again if I didn’t have to. But if you think the story just won’t be the same without it, start early.

 And, as always, be nice.

 

19 thoughts on “Music and Lyrics and Permissions, Oh My!

  1. Stacy McKitrick

    Thanks for the information. I always wondered about that. I guess it’s a good thing I only mention the artist and title of the song playing on the radio in my book (no lyrics).

    Reply
  2. Jake Nantz

    I wonder how safe my character is going to be, then? He doesn’t worry so much about music, but has a line stolen from a movie for damn near every situation, and uses them quite a bit. Crap, I may be in trouble here…

    Reply
  3. JD Rhoades

    Jake, I think a single line, or quote, particularly if it’s so well known as to be part of the culture (e.g. "here’s looking at you, kid.") would be okay, particularly if used for humorous effect. One of the examples of "fair use" is use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, .

    There’s more from the US Copyright office at http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html

    Reply
  4. Jake Nantz

    Dusty,
    Thanks again. You seem to be like a personal search engine in these matters. Or maybe just a guru. Either way, thanks, and I’ll look over the link in more detail, but what I saw at first glance looks very helpful.

    Reply
  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Very interesting topic. I don’t believe I’ve mentioned any song lyrics in any of my books, but I do listen to music all the time while I’m writing, so I suppose I should include certain artists in the Acknowledgements section, just for inspiration.

    I looked at making mention of what Charlie was listening to in the first book, but unless you make your character into classic rock/jazz/classical/etc, you run the risk of their musical tastes dating the book faster than just about anything else, so in the end I took it out.

    Looking at the hassle you went through, I’m kinda glad I wimped out on that one. You’re obviously made of sterner stuff!

    Reply
  6. Karen in Ohio

    JT, I would think that anything by Puccini would be safe, since he died in 1924. The copyright laws in place today are different than those in effect before his death, which was something like for 50 or 70 years after the person’s death. (Dusty would have better info on this, I bet.)

    Interesting discussion!

    Reply
  7. Liz Kreger

    Hi J.D. Thanx ever so much for the information. In one of my (yet unsold) novels, I use a couple of lines from the Kansas song "Dust in the Wind". If I get anywhere near selling this puppy, I’ll definitely have to get permission to use the lyrics.

    Reply
  8. Chris Hamilton

    This is a great post. The phrase "Everything I Wish I Didn’t Know" is a fantastic title for a novel (the plot for which I’m bouncing around in my head). But some sunglasses-wearing Irishman happened to write a song with that phrase as a lyric.

    Bastard.

    My current work "Stuck in a Moment" is part of a title by U2, but it’s also a pretty common phrase, so I suspect I’m okay. I get what you mean about music being a revelation, though. Great post, JD!

    Chris

    Reply
  9. JD Rhoades

    Chris, remember, you can’t copyright titles or short phrases. So your titles are okay.

    Zoe, I’m not made of sterner stuff, I’m just always cluelessly stumbling into trouble and fighting my way out of it. Sort of like my characters.

    JT, I’m reasonably sure Puccini is in the public domain. But you should check ASCAP and BMI just to be safe.

    Reply
  10. BCB

    I don’t use lyrics, but I’ve lost track [har] of the number of times other writers in my chapter have asked about this. Going to send an email to the loop now, telling people to come over here.

    Might want to vacuum and straighten up a bit…

    Reply

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