It’s Just a Couple of Lines. What’s the Harm?
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
In the autumn of 1983, I was a senior in high school and editor of my school’s yearbook. I had an “out-there” concept of slapping the logo of a hit movie on the cover and using the lyrics to the film’s title song anywhere I could shoehorn them in the yearbook.
I was fortunate (in many ways) to have a high school journalism teacher who humored my odd concept of using the lyrics from the then-hit song “Fame” from the movie of the same name in the 1984 Broomfield High yearbook. But Mrs. Babb required me to write to MGM seeking permission with the strict admonition that if my request was denied, I’d have to abandon my theme.
Because I was representing a school yearbook, permission was granted at no cost with the only requirement being that I include proper attribution. I know that many parents had issues with my Fame concept, but that’s another story.
As I wrote my memoir, I knew from my earliest drafts that using lyrics to (in most cases) hit songs would require permission to avoid copyright infringement.
So as I turned the corner from final draft toward finally publishing my memoir, Don’t Mind Me, I’m Just Having a Bad Life, I knew I needed to address the lyric usage. I figured it would be a simple matter of writing a few emails and getting similar results as I did with Fame. After all, I was just lowly independent author. I hoped all I would have to do is credit the songwriters.
Not so much.
Let me back up. I counted usage of a couple of lines each from four songs that helped root chapters in specific time periods: Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen,” Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park,” and one highly forgettable tune from an obscure Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, a song I sang as the lead in the Nashville production.
My homework provided a necessary refresher about creative works in public domain (PD) and everything else. I knew that works whose copyrights had expired (or hadn’t been renewed or had been forfeited) were considered PD and authors pretty much have free rein with their use. For musical compositions, that means generally anything published prior to 1923. For a memoir such as mine with key chapters taking place in the 1970s and 1980s, public domain wasn’t going to be much help. It did, however, allow me to include lyrics to a couple of church hymns. (On a side note, quoting from published books has its own set of rules and if sued, the “fair use” defense comes into play.)
My research showed that the permissions process was daunting and far more complicated than firing off a few emails. I also found that there are companies who, for a fee, will file all the necessary paperwork and draw upon their established relationships with music publishers to obtain the rights for their clients.
I chose to work with Easy Song Licensing (easysonglicensing.com) and after paying a non-refundable service fee, had a disheartening conversation with my assigned rep Aaron Green. He explained that the first three songs on my list were all handled by the music publishing behemoth Hal Leonard, and the last song was handled directly through the writers’ publishing company.
Aaron gave me the bad news about potential cost as well as the painfully slow process of receiving an answer. He put the process on the fastest track he could, but it still cost me a two-month delay on my book launch timeline. For an author-published book such as mine that would have both a print and an ebook edition, the number of printed copies was an important, quantitative number. Ebook distribution is usually handled separately. Aaron’s guesstimate of the fees per song were more than half my total publishing budget!
Aaron suggested I either crunch the numbers to cover the costs, or prioritize my wish list. I chose the latter option and went back to my final draft (which I renamed Final Draft – Version 2) and began to write the lyrics out for three of the tunes.
“Caribbean Queen” was the easiest rewrite.
“She Bop” came under the heading of “kill your darlings.” It hurt to remove the lyrics, but I discovered they weren’t crucial to the scene.
The Rosewater lyrics were kind of a flimsy, chapter-opening device, so the axe fell again.
But “MacArthur Park” was the one song I couldn’t do without. A key lyric set up the punchline to an entire chapter from my pre-teen years in which Donna Summer records and a lack of pet-care responsibility worked in tandem making one of the funniest chapters in the book. Without the song lyrics, the chapter didn’t work. It was an easy choice.
With the other songs off the table, Aaron was able to push for approval for “MacArthur Park” and I was granted permission. Granted, I had to pay a fee that hurt a bit but felt worth it.
I caution you that if you plan to self-publish a book, to do your due diligence and not skip the song lyric permissions step. It’s tempting to think, “Eh, no one will ever know.” These things have a tendency to bite you in the ass and the last thing you want is a cease-and-desist letter from a music publisher. That would mean pulling all books in distribution, taking down your Amazon and other online retailers listings, and force an expensive reformatting of your book after you’ve removed the lyrics.
If the song is worth it to you and important for the book, pay the fees. You’ll sleep better and the credit on your copyright page will look pretty damn cool.
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and nothing in this blog post should be construed as legal advice.