INDUSTRY KNOWHOW Copyright: Lyrics

Do your characters love songs? It's one thing for your stories to love music, but using lyrics in your writing steps into the murky waters with copyright. Dr Miriam Johnson, Senior lecturer in publishing at Oxford Brookes University, take a closer look at permissions.

You’ve seen them before, the catchy quotes at the top of a story, or to move the pacing along: a lyric you all know and love, or perhaps, one that you’ve never heard of before but now want to look up. What do all of these things have in common? Permissions.

Not the most sexy term when it comes to creative genius, but the roles of permissions is key if you want to include someone else’s work in your own. Yes, there are some exceptions for using copyrighted materials in your work without needing to seek permission, but unless you are doing non-commercial research, private study, criticism and review, non-commercial teaching, and helping out a disabled person have access, you should get permission. There are also exceptions for parody, but today let’s look more at fair dealing and permissions.

Helpfully, the guidelines say that “There is no statutory definition of fair dealing - it will always be a matter of fact, degree and impression in each case. The question to be asked is: how would a fair-minded and honest person have dealt with the work?” (UK Gov., 2019)

The question then becomes, how do we define a fair-minded and honest person? In most cases, we can assume they are someone of average intelligence, knowledge of pop culture and technology (generally speaking). Now, if we look more closely at fair dealing we have 4 key areas to consider:
  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The Publishers Association and the Society of Authors came together and made guidelines, which you can find here. But, they are not legally binding and only provide suggestions on how much of another’s work can be used. One key is the nature of the work where quality matters – for instance, taking the most famous line from a Eliot poem would, perhaps, be more infringing than 5 obscure lines. Either way, you need to properly credit their work.

None of this broaches the concept of cost. For any permissions, you need to contact the publisher’s permissions team and get a quote for cost, based on where it will be use, how many copies will go out, what is the type of use, among other things, which can alter based on the publisher. If you are writing about lyrics in an academic sense, like reading gender into Britney songs, you are probably ok, but if you use her lyrics to set a scene in your book, that’s going to require permissions, because music companies are keen to protect their assets.

That’s all well and good, but music lyrics often have an added level of trickiness. Who owns them after all? You’d think the artist. But oftentimes the singer isn’t the songwriter, and even if they are they don’t deal with their own permissions, so don’t drop them an email or DM. Instead seek out the music publisher – a quick google of artist + music publisher will get you going. When you do find the content you want to cite, you will need an idea of the publisher, the number of copies and the use. So be prepared, and be ready to pay more if you are doing a 50,000 print run as opposed to a self-published work.

Either way, yeah, you can argue fair dealing, but it’s not really worth the risk.

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hoto by Wendy Wei from Pexels

Living in London, Miriam Johnson is the Senior Lecturer in Publishing at Oxford Brookes, specialising in the MA in Publishing Media and the MA in Digital Publishing. Discover more about Miriam’s work and projects on her site and follow her at @MiriamJ801.


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