You have this amazing scene in your novel or short story in which your protagonists are speeding along in their ’68 Ford Mustang and you realize just how cool it would be if they are listening to the car stereo and cruising to Cake’s “Stickshifts and Safetybelts.” And so you craft your scene something like this…
Charise dropped the Mustang into second gear as she approached the intersection of First and Grand. Trevor fumbled with the radio dial, stopping on 88.5 WGML, and John McCrea’s voice flooded the car’s quad speakers.
I need you here with me
Not way over in a bucketseat
The light ahead was red. Charise slammed the brakes with both feet, momentarily drowning out Cake’s uptempo guitar riffs, as the vehicle skidded to a halt, nearly avoiding a rear-end collision with the Kia stopped directly ahead.
Whether you know it or not, you’ve just opened up a big can of potential legality. Regardless of whether you intend to publish your story on your own blog or web site, or if you plan to submit your work to a publisher, something’s got to be addressed.
Aside from works in the public domain, you cannot publish copyrighted lyrics in your story and publish it without prior permission of the copyright holder. You can, however, reference song titles, artists, and bands/musicians. In the example above, it would be fine to reference Cake, John McCrea, and the song title “Stickshifts and Safetybelts.” No permission is needed for these references. However, it’s quite another matter to include lyrics from the song.
So what to do?
Self-Publishing: If you are planning to self-publish, and if you are adamant that the lyrics must be included, then you’ll need to track down the copyright holder to obtain permission. This can be easy or challenging. Start with a Google search and see where it takes you. Most likely there will be some fee, and will may vary based on several factors (such as your estimated print run or the size of your online audience). But as a self-publisher that lacks a permissions department, you’re going to have to do the leg work on your own. Assuming you are granted permission, you’ll need to cite this in your published work. The copyright holder will likely provide the citation text to be included. Always include it.
Publishing Through a Publishing House: If your manuscript has been accepted for publication by a reputable publishing house, then your publisher liaison will take on the task of securing the necessary copyright permissions. Depending on how that goes, you might asked to remove the lyrics. Either way, the publisher will work through any negotiations to occur and should incur the necessary expenses.
Recognize, however, that not all requests to reprint lyrics will be accepted. The Hendrix Corporation, for example, which manages the permission requests of the Jimi Hendrix music catalog, has specific requirements around grants of permission. For example, the corporation prohibits the use of Hendrix’s lyrics in stories that reference drug or alcohol use, regardless of how benign that use might be. We recently requested permission to run lyrics from “Purple Haze” for a nonfiction work in an anthology. However, this request was politely declined because the manuscript that would have included the lyrics contained some minor reference to alcohol consumption. Did the removal of the lyrics affect the overall story? In this publisher’s opinion: Not at all. A good story isn’t (or shouldn’t be) dependent upon lyrics inclusion for the most part.
Others have suggested that, rather than include actual lyrics, a writer can simply use his or her imagination to craft a fictional artist, song title, and lyrics. This is a fine and creative approach, though the end result may lack the punch you were going for.
Lastly, you can avoid potential issues entirely by referencing the song title, the artist, etc, but refraining from including actual song lyrics. If you write something like…
Kara hopped aboard the Harley Davidson Electra Glide and throttled the engine as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” echoed in her mind.
…your audience will get the tone you’re setting. They don’t need the lyrics to be explicitly spelled out for them in black and white. Thus, mood is evoked without needing permissions.
Long-story short: Published lyrics can be included in your work. However, if self-publishing, before including lyrics, be sure you’ve taken the necessary precautions to avoid potential lawsuits. A reputable publisher will take on this task for you. Always cite permission, once received. Lastly, avoid assuming that it’s okay to include lyrics in your story without obtaining permission because you think that “no one will ever know or find out.”
Someone will always know. Someone will always find out.