Thinking of Using Music in Your Fiction? Think Again.

Song lyrics can be very powerful in evoking the right feelings, creating that all important ambience and softening an atmosphere. In short, the right lyrics used correctly can pipe the icing on that all important scene.

Writers often debate the pros and cons of mentioning music in their novels. Like books, songs are a subjective area and where a choice may resonate and conjure up happy memories for some, it may put others off, particularly if it is a genre they don’t like for whatever reason.

Some writers feel that using music in books dates the fiction. This may be true although, for my part, crime fiction dates very quickly anyway; technology develops and police procedures change as the years fold by. Dating doesn’t necessary mean readers won’t read your work. As much as it is interesting to read a historical novel, it can also be quite nostalgic to read contemporary prose set before the advent of the internet, or before the extensive use of mobile phones.

I love listening to music and decided that there were some scenes in my second book where a couple of well known songs would make a difference. I did my research and found it fun to pick out song lyrics and weave them into the text. I credited the singer and ticked them off. Job done. How wrong I was…

Despite taking two creative writing courses, I didn’t realise until I received my publishing contract that quoting song lyrics in your fiction requires ‘permission’ to be sought from the copyright owner. No problem. Or so I thought. It seems that seeking permission can be a very costly business.

It’s not enough to thank record companies in your acknowledgements page. They often charge for the privilege of quoting the works, and the bill generally falls to the author, not the publisher, to settle. It appears that I’m not the only author to be blissfully unaware of this legality. Blake Morrison, author of South of the River, decided to use song lyrics in a party scene at the end of his book. He paid over £500 for a line of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ and almost £200 for a piece of George Michael’s ‘Fastlove’. The final bill for the collection of lines used amounted to almost four and a half thousand pounds. You can read his full article in The Guardian here.

I considered narrowing my use to song titles. However, it seems that permission doesn’t stop at quoting lines from songs. According to Writers Digest, although there is no direct copyright in titles, ‘they occasionally can be subject to trademark or unfair competition laws’ too.

Hmmm. I contacted the Society of Authors for advice. They said that record companies can come down hard on authors if the title of a song is also a lyric. Their advice: if in doubt seek permission, or leave it out of the text.

Luckily, in the run up to its release next year, I have time to revise the text in my second book and remove references which may cause copyright infringement. However, I wanted to share this with my fellow writers out there so that you can avoid facing a similar dilemma. If you’re thinking of using titles or song lyrics in your fiction, then do give it some serious thought. It seems it can be a very costly business.  

9 thoughts on “Thinking of Using Music in Your Fiction? Think Again.

  1. I’m trying to get over this in my current WIP by slightly mis-quoting a line – then it’s not a lyric from that song, is it? I hope not, anyway…. what do you think?

    • Oh, I’m not sure. The legality of all of this has tied me up in knots over the past week. Maybe if it’s not obvious? If it’s not imperative I might be tempted to leave it out though. Just saying. Thanks for stopping by x

  2. My editor had me take out lyrics but leave a song title. She said the same thing. I know an author who posted a picture she’d downloaded from the internet to her website for a blog. The photographer came after her. It cost her $1,500 to settle.

    • Really, Stephanie? I’m glad I’m not the only one, lol.
      I’m sorry to hear about your friend. We have to be so careful what we use. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Brilliant post Jane and one we needed know. I’ve shared the post so more people see it. I hope the edits don’t mess things up too much for you. You’d actually think they were getting free advertising. Especially as I went an bought an album I read a character listening to a character listening to in a book only a week ago!

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