Using song lyrics in a book

Before I start, I would like to clarify that this is a piece based purely on my personal experience in this area and in dealing with one particular artist (who shall remain nameless).

It all came about fairly quickly. I wrote the first draft of my novel ‘The Dark Era’ in a month for NaNoWriMo. It was a process that made me happy. It wasn’t perfect but I surprised myself with how quickly I could write a story that I had wanted to tell for many years.

Then I took some time out. It was really a month long hangover from such a busy November; not to mention a pretty relentless year. So I had a relaxing December, Christmas and New Year before going back to the novel. I immediately found there was a lot to do. A lot of work to bring it up to anything even resembling the quality I needed it to be.

One of the first things that struck me as I started editing was the added nuance which could be added to the story through a couple of carefully placed lyrics by a specific musician.

Of course, I had little idea of how to go about this or how practical it was with regard to rights management etc. For this reason I looked online for the experiences of other independent author’s and found little to make me think there was much chance of securing the usage of the words I wanted; at least not without paying an extortionate amount of money for the privilege.

There would certainly be little point in spending hundreds of pounds on a couple of lyrical quotes when it was impossible to guarantee that I could make that money back in the sales of the book.

I looked for some alternatives to the use of lyrics in the book and I did come up with a solution of sorts. I decided I could simply use three specific song titles by the specified artist to open each of the three sections that the story is split into. (It turns out that song titles are okay to use as they are usually a short, simple combination of words that would be virtually impossible to copyright).

The idea would work perfectly well for my purposes and I was quite pleased . Unfortunately, that was only until it dawned on me that it might work even better in conjunction with using lyrics to top and tail the entire book. It was only then that I decided to just take a risk. After all, I actually had very little to lose because even in the worst case scenario of being refused the rights or being priced out of the possibility, I still had my other option.

The decision I made early on was to try to handle this process in as thorough and professional manner as I possibly could. So, I started looking for a contact address for the artist and hit my first problem: there simply wasn’t any official address available. I scoured the internet and found very little except a fan site stating that no official contact address or even fan club existed and hadn’t done for several years. However, the site did confirm that there was an unofficial link to a media company, who might be able to put me in contact with the artist’s management company.

Undeterred, but realising the unlikelihood of reaching anyone, I wrote a short e-mail explaining who I was trying to reach and for what purpose. Surprisingly I received an email from the company stating that my email had been forwarded to the artist’s management company.

I received another surprise only a day later when I got another email in my inbox from the artist’s legal representation, a large law firm based in New York.

It said:

Dear James:

We received your email below seeking permission to use various (examples of our client’s) lyrics in your forthcoming novel. Generally, we don’t allow for thematic uses of (our client’s) work. In this instance, using several quotes from (one of their) album(s) would seem to create a thematic feel to the novel. Nevertheless, we would be willing to consider one or two incidental uses. Please provide me with the following information and I will be able to process your request with our client’s representatives:

1. Title of your novel

2. Short synopsis of your novel

3. The exact lyrics you are seeking permission to reprint along with the in-context use

4. Who is your publisher

5. What is the format of distribution

6. What is the print run

7. What is the territory of distribution

8. Will you be using other lyrics or quoted material in your novel

Of course, if you have any questions or comments, please let me know.

Best regards,

Upon receiving the email, the first thing that occurred to me was that I hadn’t really put together any kind of actual synopsis for ‘The Dark Era’. I’d considered most other things to do with it but not that. I decided then that if nothing else came of my enqiry then it would still be worthwhile in making me set out a clear and (relatively) concise synopsis.

A few days later my synopsis was written and I answered the rest of the queries; explaining that the book would be self-published, would be released as an e-book and printed through a print on demand service. I was also clear that I would not be using any other lyrics or quotations in the novel.

Two days later I received another e-mail:

Dear James:

Thanks for your quick reply.

Although I understand you are looking to use lyrics to open and close the book, would you please send me the first couple pages and the last couple pages so I can get a sense of the “in-context” use.

Best regards,

This led to a very minor panic. The truth was that I didn’t feel completely ready to share anything from the book and, while, the first couple of pages had received some editing, the last couple certainly hadn’t. Still, the panic didn’t last long and I very quickly went through the first and last chapter’s to make them as coherent as possible. I wasn’t entirely happy with them but since it was simply to give an idea of the context, I could accept it in the knowledge that the quality of writing would be significantly better when the book was released.

It took me a week to get to that point and to send the e-mail along with the details requested and an apology and explanation for the delay in my response. At that point, I had no idea whether my request was going to be accepted or not. In many ways it didn’t matter though. For almost the first time in the year that I had been publishing books, I truly felt like I was actually a writer. It may only have been my perception but it felt like I was being taken seriously. It was a small but not insignificant validation.

Nearly a week passed and there was another e-mail in my inbox:

Dear James:

This email is to confirm that your request seeking permission to reprint several lines from the (Artist’s) compositions… in your novel entitled The Dark Era have been approved subject to the following terms and conditions:

  • In-context Use: (Lyric 1) to be used to open the book and (Lyric 2) to be used to close the book. Actual lyrics and use shall be solely as submitted.
  • Publisher: Youngblood Books (self publication)
  • Edition: First English-language edition and its reprints only
  • Format: Paperback and eBook
  • Initial Print Run: N/A, print on demand
  • Territory of Distribution: World
  • Fee: $100 ($50 per composition), subject to “most favored nations” treatment with all other quoted material used in the book, regardless of length or type of use.
  • Required Copyright Notice: “(Song title 1) and “(Song title 2)” by (The Artist). Copyright © 2002 (The Artist) (ASCAP). Reprinted by permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
  • You may not use the lyrics or (the artist’s) name or likeness in any advertising or promotion whatsoever.

Please let me know if you are agreeable to the terms above. If so, we will issue a letter agreement. Please also let us know who the licensee should be (including street address).

Of course, if you have any questions or comments, please let me know.

Best regards,

Naturally, I was very pleased with this outcome. Not only had my request been approved but the cost was completely acceptable to me as I believed the book would at least be able to make that money back.

I swiftly replied to confirm my agreement and a contract was dispatched to me, which arrived a few short weeks later. I read through the contract and it was a fairly simple document that even someone with as limited an understanding of legal terms as I have could understand. It simply affirmed what had been put in the e-mail about the agreement, along with the request for a copy of the book when it was published, ‘for their files’.

There was also a small note requesting for payment to be made out to the artist and that was when I realised that I wasn’t sure how best to make the payment. I considered paying by personal cheque but since it was in Pounds and the payment was in dollars I wasn’t sure how acceptable it was to do that. I decided to visit my local bank and see what my other options were. The first option was to simply transfer the money through the bank. That would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that on top of the $100/£67 i would have to pay an additional £25. That seemed a little excessive to me and also to the lady I spoke to at the bank, who advised me to go to the Post Office and ask about a service they provide called Moneygram. So, I did this and it was certainly the better of the two options, although there was still a charge of £12. In both cases, these seemed to be services better designed for larger sums of money and so I eventually decided to contact the artist’s legal firm again to see whether it would be possible to send a cheque to them in pounds or whether the Moneygram service would be more acceptable to them.

Once again the response was quick:

Hi James,

You should be able to get your bank to write a check for you in U.S. dollars, however if you prefer just to send a personal check in pounds using the current rate, our accountants have said that they can deposit the currency. Either option is fine.

Best regards,

And so I was able to send the cheque and the contract back to the U.S.A and conclude a surprisingly simple piece of business.

What it suggests to me is that what it takes to gain copyright usage in a book can vary widely from case to case. In many ways, I was clearly very fortunate and it certainly fits with this particular songwriter’s career and reputation to be generous to those less well off than themselves. On the other hand, it may be nothing more than luck. Whatever the reasons are though, I can only be grateful that I have been given the opportunity to put my novel together in exactly the way that I wish and without paying too heavy a price for the privilege. All I have to do now is makie a decent job of it!



James Eddy was born in Braintree, Essex in April 1980. After moving first to Colchester, Essex, the family settled in South Norfolk and James was able to enjoy the wide open spaces and quiet of the area which fed his imagination. Following an undistinguished University career, he began writing scripts for films and acting out the cliche of the drunken writer. He diversified by moving into prose and eventually focussed enough to write a collection of Short Stories called 'Diamonds' along with several other short stories a novel and novella. He released 'Bewilder', the first story from 'Diamonds' in April 2012.

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Posted in Copyright, Editing, Rights Management, Song Lyrics, Writing Process

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