Some of us creative types are emotionally affected by music. Some of us like a particular type of music more than other particular types of music. Some of us like many types of music and our preferences depend on what mood we are in. We can’t help it. We love music. We sing in the car, sometimes not caring if other people see us. Sometimes we sing in the car when we think no one is looking. We sing in the shower. We sing at work. We sing along with YouTube videos, and the TV. We sing regardless of our singing abilities and tone deafness.
Those song lyrics are in our head—sometimes as ear worms—and those songs trigger emotional responses. And as writers, we want to trigger emotional responses in our readers.
What do some writers do?
They start their chapters off with song lyrics to evoke the chapter’s mood. Or, maybe, their character sings the chorus of a fabulous song in a really great scene. Yay!
(Dun, dun, dun)
There’s a problem with using song lyrics in your work of fiction.
Here’s the deal. Song lyrics are other people’s property.
That property is copyrighted.
The music industry doesn’t look kindly on stealing their property.
Some claim that it is “fair use” to use the lyrics in fiction because the fiction author is using only a line or two in their work. But, I disagree. Fair use is for commentary and parody. Fiction isn’t either of those.
There are four criteria for determining fair use, and these criteria are open to interpretation, which the courts must decide, but my opinion is for fiction, don’t risk it.
The four criteria are:
- the purpose and character of your use (Is it for commercial purposes? Like for fiction? It’s probably not fair use)
- the nature of the copyrighted work (Is it creative? Say for example, song lyrics? It’s probably not fair use)
- the amount and substantiality of the portion taken (which has not been determined but regardless for our purposes it’s probably not fair use), and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market (ie. Will your use of the song lyrics deprive the owner of income? This may depend upon how your book sells, but regardless, for our purposes it’s probably not fair use).
There is an exception. If the song is in the public domain and was published before 1923 then it is fair game.
But if the song was written after 1923 you will need to get permission from the copyright holder to use their work in your work, which is a lot of work. It can be done, but it ain’t easy. It can take a long time. It may cost you money.
If you want to get permissions to use those song lyrics in your work of fiction, then by all means do. You can do it through BMI (link below). But do it now so you have the permissions before you publish. You could save yourself $200 to $150,000 (plus court costs) for each copyright infringement.
Or maybe write your own song lyrics?