Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Quoting Songs in Novels

One of the nuggets of information I learned at my editing workshop weekend with author Catherine Ryan Hyde was regarding using pieces of songs in your fiction. I particularly wanted to hear about this topic because my novel, which I'm currently in revision on, features a character who finds herself in an unusual and strange situation. Therefore, the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime seemed very appropriate to quote. Especially in a scene where she gets a new car -- the line about large automobiles fit very well. But it turns out that quoting songs is somewhat treacherous.

Someone asked Catherine, "How should I punctuate songs?"

The answer was, "Don't."

As in, Don't use songs. Period.

Unless songs are under public domain, you will have to pay for the right to use the song -- even if it's just a line. And guess what: your publisher isn't going to foot that bill. You are. And it could be hundreds of dollars.

Now, this is maybe a little stodgy on the part of artists. You would think they would be delighted to have an author quote their song in their book, which a) helps market the author and artist and b) helps keep the song in the public consciousness. But I also understand that this is artistic property, and it should be paid for.

So I dutifully -- but not happily -- removed all referenced to the Talking Heads song from my novel.

What do you think about this? Do you use song lines in your stories? Which ones?


Tabitha Bird said...

I agree. Don't use songs. Even trying to get the rights to use the song is a huge deal. And really, being that we are artists in our own write, I think us writers can come up with our own words to express what ever is going on in our books. I'd steer clear of quoting anything. Period.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

I have a line from an Alice in Chains song in mine because it's just *so perfect*.

Lots of authors quote poems, old fiction, even technical or political texts, so why not songs? They can help readers make connections, sometimes illuminate underlying themes or even information about setting and character.

I'd pay the $$$, as long as it was reasonable, to keep it in. But if it was an obstacle to publication then I guess I'd take it out.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

Also, I love that Talking Heads song!

Matt said...

I Took a song title that inspired a story and incorporated it into the book Title and throughout the book. It's only three words, but now might have to rethink it.

Travener said...

A snippet of a song doesn't come under the "fair use doctrine"? Really?

Anonymous said...

I've used song lines for titles, but it's too much of a pain to get use rights, so I've never included one in a book. Of course, you could always write your own songs. But you don't get the cultural reference bonus.

Anne R. Allen said...

I used to quote popular songs in my work all the time, and I didn't run into any problems-- but, um, that was because I wasn't sending it anywhere. (Nobody cares what you quote in the privacy of your desk drawer.)

But when I did try to publish, I discovered the sad truth Catherine talked about: even a "snippet" of a song lyric is under copyright. It's not like prose, where you're allowed a phrase or two. Think how many pop songs are just one "snippet" repeated endlessly. I'd quote some, but I'd probably get sued...

Often it's not the artist who owns the rights, but some big music corporation, and they don't care if you're promoting the artist's work.

Tina Lynn said...

Nope. No songs. I just use them as inspiration.

JEM said...

Hi Sierra - I can weigh in to a certain extent from the music side because I used to work for a music publisher. The true issue is that laws around IP aren't very well-defined, and while you or I might be ethical enough to keep our use to a minimum, many other people might not be so ethical. My understanding, though, is that you should be fine to reference the song, you just can't quote it directly. It's been awhile, though...

Sierra Godfrey said...

This is a great discussion, guys.

Tabitha – Good point about coming up with our own words!

Lt – I think you’re going to have to remove the Alice in Chains quote. I was super bummed to remove the Talking Heads lines.

Matt – I think a song title might be a different issue, but I don’t know the legality around it.

Trav – No :(

Atsiko- The cultural reference is huge I think because it’s collective consciousness.

Anne – and it costs the author hundreds of dollars, plus you have to do all the legwork!

JEM – thanks for this input! I think you’re right about referencing but not quoting. The lyrics, after all, are published material and under copyright. Saying a song exists doesn’t infringe.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

One thing that is good to know though is that you can use song titles because those aren't copyrighted. I had to look that up because my book is about a rock singer, so music is a big part of the book. So I did use the title of songs with reference to the artists but no lines. This is why you see a lot of books with titles that are also song titles (ex. Wally Lamb's I Know This Much is True and She's Come Undone.)

Simon C. Larter said...

This makes me wonder if The Hold Steady is going to bug me over me using one line from a song of theirs in my published flash fiction. I get the feeling they won't bother. If they're steamed, I'll just drive to Brooklyn and drink beers with them till they calm down. Or destroy them. Either way.

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

What a bummer, because songs seem like such a great tool to use for everything from mood to characterization to foreshadowing. My antagonist is obsessed with a song while he drives...I was deciding whether or not to use the actual lyrics (ie: him singing along, or simply quoting). Glad to know not to, and glad to read Roni's comment that song titles aren't copyrighted and so okay to use.

GREAT post! Thanks for giving me something to think about.

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

Say it ain't so!! I have referenced lines from at least two songs -- in four chapters!


And there is one that I am still going to keep in there until the day when an agent/editor/ publisher REQUIRES me to remove it.

Julie Dao said...

Hmmm that is a shame, but I can see why it's safer to avoid the lyrics. What if a story title or chapter title is inspired by lyrics though? I wonder if that would be okay, but again I bet it's safer to just avoid running into a sticky situation.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Roni -- good to know about the song titles.

NemeSimon - Oh, you and your destroy talk. Pah!

Nicole -- thanks for commenting! I was bummed to find this out too. It changes things, doesn't it?

Amber -- God, you're funnyspice.

Julie -- See Roni's comment above -- titles are ok!

Meghan Ward said...

Good advice. The other problem with quoting songs is, even if you're willing to pay, getting them to give you the permission. One friend of mine couldn't get the permission in time before press, so had to remove a song last minute.

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