3 Things to Consider When Using Song Lyrics in Your Book

When I rewrite my cozy, each chapter will open with a verse, or part of a verse, from a hymn. Like a lot of writers I know, and a lot of the people I know, music is a huge part of my life. So it isn’t surprising that so many of us attempt to use it in our stories. Attempt? Yep. It doesn’t always work. Here are three things to keep in mind about using lyrics in your work, fiction or nonfiction.

Using song lyrics in your writing can be tricky.
Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

Deeply Personal

Music is deeply personal. I have far ranging taste and music that speaks to me ranges from rockabilly to heavy metal. Yeah, I’m kind of hard to peg down. But among what I love are old hymns. The problem is that what speaks to me may not speak to my reader. The lyrics I choose to include could hook some readers but others might put the book back on the shelf because of these same lyrics.

Copyright

Lyrics are copyrighted. That means that if a song is under copyright, you have to pay a fee to include the lyrics in your own work. So think again before you include a line or two from an Ed Sheeran ballad. You will not only have to get Ed’s permission but also pay a fee.

This is probably why so many books include song titles. Song titles are not copyrighted. My character can listen to “Afterglow,” “You Better You Better You Bet,” and “Don’t Wanna Fight.” But as long as I do not quote any lyrics I don’t owe any money to Ed Sheeran, The Who, or Alabama Shakes.

Of course, there is a workaround but it means avoiding copyright music.

Public Domain

You are going to see it posted in various places that the copyright has expired on songs that were published before 1923. That is often but not always true. If the earliest AUTHORIZED publication was before 1923, the work is in public domain. If a song was published in 1914 without permission but the first authorized publication was 1930 it may still be under copyright.

You are going to have to do your homework to make sure that the music you want to use is copyright free or you are going to have to pay a fee.

I suspect this is why a lot of authors make up original folkmusic or lyrics for rockbands that exist only in the writer’s imagination. Me? I’m going to see what I can find in terms of copyright on hymns. The beauty is that we are still singing hymns that are well over 100 years old. Fingers crossed!

–SueBE