What are the laws regarding song lyrics and how does one get permission to use them? I have heard that titles are okay, but not lyrics. If an author wanted to use lyrics, how would one go about asking for permission? Are there legal forms and such to fill out or, after getting permission, print the songs copyright permission?
When you’re in the process of writing a book, you shouldn’t worry about any of this stuff, except from an artistic and longevity standpoint. Do you really want to include the lyrics to Rihanna’s “shine bright like a diamond” song in your book? Do you think anybody is going to know or care about those lyrics in 10 years? Books last a long time.
The answer might be yes – and in that case, go ahead and use the lyrics.
Now, if you sell your book to a book company, that’s where the lawyers come in. In the first draft of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, I included the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” in the scene where all the psych patients have music therapy. My writer friend Marty Beckerman read that draft and told me, “You’re going to have to pay Bob Dylan like half a million dollars.”
Marty was right – it would have cost a fortune to quote “Like a Rolling Stone.” So I changed the scene to refer to a generalized classic rock song. Then, in the movie version, they used “Under Pressure” for this scene, and it’s pretty much people’s favorite part of the movie. So that’s an argument for keeping things general.
If you are self-publishing your book, there’s a very small chance that the artists you quote will come and sue you. But you never know. And as a rule, the less specific your cultural references are, the better your book will age, translate, and lend itself to the interpretation of readers.
Thanks, good luck!
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Have questions about writing or the business of publishing? Ask a real writer! Ned Vizzini is the award-winning author of It’s Kind of a Funny Story (also a major motion picture), Be More Chill, Teen Angst? Naaah…, and The Other Normals. In television, he has written for MTV and ABC. His essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and Salon. He is the co-author, with Chris Columbus, of the forthcoming fantasy-adventure series House of Secrets (April 2013). His work has been translated into eight languages. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.