How can you legally quote a song lyric?
It’s a good question especially since music makes, shapes, and creates the mood in only a few words.
Take All Along the Watchtower, for instance. Those five words string images of the sixties, Vietnam, Jimi Hendrix, Civil Rights Movement, and freedom. Oh, okay and weed.
If you are writing a horror novel or horror short story, and you mention two words from an Iron Maiden song or anything written by Ozzy, it’ll invoke dark mysticism and dreadful images. And if you’re tight on word count, putting in song lyrics can paint a picture for the reader without writing too much detail.
Not to mention, song lyrics can provide clues to the story and set the stage for what’s in store. When something bad happens for instance, my short story called “Into the Void,” I originally wanted to mention certain lyrics from Into the Void by Black Sabbath. But after doing some research about copyright laws and after looking at copyrights listed inside books where the author used song lyrics, I realized this was a bad idea. Writer, Richard Kadrey, list song lyrics in his Sandman Slim series, but he was granted permissions to do so by the record label or by the artist.
So unfortunately, the only legal way to quote a song lyric exactly is to ask for permission. And most self-published authors don’t have the means to obtain permissions, let alone pay for them.
Consequently, I had to think and think hard. How can I avoid being slapped in the face with copyright violation after violation once my book tops the New York bestseller list? (That’s one of my aspirations) There’s three ways to do this.
- To avoid copyright issues, in my novel, The Gentleman, I only mentioned the title of the song and the name of the artist. This way, I’m not violating copyright laws. Bingo, I now have set the mood and avoided lawsuits. Here’s a sample of how I pulled it off:
“Then, the radio came on. Ain’t wastin’ No Mo’ Time by the Allman Brothers played. The picture on the table tipped over. The glass of the frame shattered. His gun fell from his hands, and he gravitated to the broken frame.”
Credit given, lawsuit avoided, mic dropped.
- Another way to avoid copyright lawsuits is to make up artist that have similar characteristics to the real artist but aren’t the actual person, per say. Robot Chicken does this a lot. They rearrange the score, or drop the key, and change the words. But even with all the changes they’ve made to the original, you still know what song they’re imitating.
Metalocalypse is notorious for this as well. They combine distinguished trademarks of multiple musicians into one character e.g. Snakes-n-barrels (Guns and Roses and Aerosmith combined). One character, whom I love, named Doctor Rockso the Rock-n-Roll Clown, the creators based off Van Halen’s front man, David Lee Roth. Plus, anytime they feature a song you know, they rearrange the lyrics, and drop the key.
Vanilla Ice anyone? Under Pressure by Queen was sampled in his song without permission and he got away with by adding in an extra beat. Here are more artists who’ve done the same: Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, The Beatles, and Eric Clapton.
How do you do this with your book you ask? Well that is simple my dear Watson. I’ll take a very famous song and change the lyrics and the artist’s name:
“If I stay here tomorrow, will you get tired of me? I’m never traveling on out now, I’m scared of the bees. But if I don’t stay here with you girl, I’ll just go insane, because I’m as caged as a dog now. And this dog you’ll never change. And this dog you’ll never change. Changee-e-ange-e-ange-e-ange-e-ange-e-ange-e-ange-e-ange.” ~ Freeylrd Birylrd
Okay that was a bit much but you get it. Change it up yo’. I will admit that this strategy works best in novels with humor in them and I wouldn’t advise anyone writing a serious thriller/suspense to use this technic. It might ruin your prose.
- The last way to quote a song legally, is to ask for permissions. For more information on how to obtain permissions, check out Media Bistro’s (Galleycat) piece that covers some of what I touched on and details how and who to contact.
Hope this helps. Also, if you know of other ways to avoid copyright violations when quoting song lyrics, please feel free to leave a comment. [NP]