Sunday, 12 February 2012

Song lyrics in novels - just don't go there

John Lennon's IN MY LIFE lyrics, redacted
I can't remember where I first picked up the idea that it was very, very expensive to use snippets of song lyrics in the novel you are writing.

I'd heard The Beatles never get quoted at all as the charges for so doing are astronomical.

So when I came to the scene in Remix where Caz is in her best friend James's car and she uneasily suspects he is romantically interested in her, then Some Enchanted Evening plays on the radio, I knew not to quote a few lines from the song though I would have liked to.

Not everyone does, though. This is Blake Morrison talking about his eleventh novel South of the River in the Guardian:

'I'd restricted myself to just a line or two from a handful of songs and vaguely hoped that was OK or that no one would notice. My editor, reasonably enough, was more cautious, and at the last minute someone from the publishing house helpfully secured the permissions on my behalf.

'I still have the invoices. For one line of "Jumpin' Jack Flash": £500. For one line of Oasis's "Wonderwall": £535. For one line of "When I'm Sixty-four": £735. For two lines of "I Shot the Sheriff" (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael's "Fastlove" came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75. A typical advance for a literary novel by a first-time author would barely meet the cost.'

Strewth. For those of you who didn't know this, now you do.


  1. Who'd be a paperback writer ...

  2. We must be psychic! For some reason I randomly started thinking about this the other day and came across the exact same Guardian article that you quote.

    What shocked me most by the prices is that one line from a song can cost more to quote as an entire poem.

    It's all a bit silly when clearly no one is making any attempt to take down or charge the dozens of lyric websites.

  3. Jo, I'd love to say something wittier than you need a ticket to rights...

    Oracle, I am slightly psychic in a useless way. No doubt your thoughts seeped to me through the ether :o)

  4. Wouldn't have thought of this. Thanks for the good information.

  5. Ok!! I shall now enrol in music school ala Fame! I wanna live forever! type and learn how to write my own lyrics! LOL!

    Take care

  6. My pleasure, Buttercup. Regards to Westley.

    Kitty, once you've done that, I'm sure you'll allow your faithful bloggie friends free quotes of your lyrics in our novels.

  7. Maybe the answer is to write your own lyrics? If you can get the right vibe, it might come across as famous lyrics that the reader would be embarrassed to admit they had never heard of.

  8. But I wouldn't want to make my nice readers feel ignorant and embarrassed. If they know the song, they'll remember the lines.

    In Replica Nick fights a couple of guards with Kasabian's Fast Fuse playing in the background. It's a terrific aggressive track. Readers will either be familiar with it or not...

  9. The Internet has made a nonsense of copyright law by publishing (worldwide, of course) works which remain in copyright in many places. You can even find warnings to the effect that "if you live in the following countries, you should leave this site now".

    UK copyright law is very restrictive. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, published in 1895, remains in copyright simply because the author has not yet been dead seventy years.

    The greed which fuels the predatory attitude of the guardians of song lyric copyright is revolting. It is, I fear, only a matter of time before some penniless indie pays a price he can't afford for being unable to imagine such avarice.

  10. I suppose there must be some relation between the charge/fine and the number of books sold, if infringement was detected? I expect most authors on the indie circuit would be aware it's a no go area, and I tend to assume the more successful indies are mixing with their peers Perhaps I'll start a thread on Kindleboards.

  11. My mum wanted to quote a couple of lines from "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" in her book KINMERS LEA but before she went ahead she researched it on the internet and found just what you've found. You could be in dead trouble if you didn't get permission and pay a huge fee. Also, it said it could take an enormously long time for the permissions to be granted. She ended up just quoting the title, which you are allowed to do, but it rather spoiled a joke she wanted to make. Never mind. Better that, than get stung with some dreadful copyright infringement lawsuit.

  12. Cassie, one should avoid tangling with lawyers where possible. I've started the thread on Kindleboards, and some people didn't know, so that's good.

  13. It's not always as straightforward as getting permission and paying the fee, either, Lexi. On one of the books I've published, the Michael Jackson estate refused permission to quote a couple of lines from "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'".

  14. I'd heard they sometimes want to see chapters before and after the quotation. Any idea why they turned you down, Allen?

  15. Thanks for this post. I've been telling this to editing clients for years, but somehow they don't believe me, or they think "nobody will notice." I'm going to send this link to some people who still aren't paying attention. (Or they think the rules are the same as for prose, where you're allowed a handful of lines without getting permission.) Those figures in actual monetary amounts might get a reaction. Thanks!

    Making up your own lyrics is a great solution. A creative novelist can usually do that without too much of a brain strain.

  16. I think once you know you can't do it without a lot of expense and trouble, it's easy to manage with just the title and maybe some description; the reader will run the song through his/her head if it's well known enough. If it's not, the significance will be lost anyway.

  17. In TAR, I originially quoted the lyrics to 'It ain't necessarily so' several times; indeed it was a refrain running through the text.

    Once I realised there was a cost I abandoned the idea... and made-up some lyrics instead. Much cheaper!

  18. And there's nothing to stop a character humming a song. Can you guess what song this is the start of?

    "Mmm mmmmm mmm, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm."