Can I quote a verse of a song lyric?

In one of my ebooks I quote the first verse of Mr. Sandman by The Chordettes (1954). Does anyone know if I actually have the legal right to do that? I thought quoting part of a song would legally defined as “fair use” but some people think not and that I could be sued.

Also I want to use the first version of the actual recording at the front of the podcast audio version I plan to make of the novella. Can I legally do that (the podcast will be free, though the ebook costs 99c or 77p in the UK.)

Anyone know? A simple yes or no would suffice - I tried the legal pages but don’t understand a word.

Yes, if you have permission and pay any fee requested.

No, if you don’t. … yrics.html

Fair use for copyrighted songs (and poems) is problematic (it’s based on the percentage used, more or less: a 250-word paragraph from a 250,000-word book is almost always fair use; a 25-word song snippet from a 250-word song, or poem, almost always isn’t).

Generally, for a song published after 1923 you’ll need permission from the copyright holder. The newer and the more popular the song, the more necessary to secure clear permission (and the more evil will be the lawyers who descend). Context also matters: if your plot-turn hinges on the song lyrics, that’s more “use” than just an opening quotation. And note that Titles can’t be copyrighted.

You can check BMI or ASCAP for copyright owners, but be aware that permissions for song use can be pricey (and can take forever to secure). You’re on your own with self-publishing, but if you’re going through a conventional publisher you can usually let them worry about permissions (though they’ll typically deduct them from your royalties).

A quick Google shows that Pat Ballard wrote the song, and that he died in 1960. He may or may not have retained the rights, or he may have sold (or bequeathed) them to the song’s publisher.

Ahab’s advice about the quantity your are quoting is good. I’ll add a bit more.

Fair use also hinges on how you’re using the material. If you’re a music professor writing a scholarly article in which you quote the song, line by line and commenting on what each means, you could use every bit of it.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a novel and simply want to include a scene in which a character sings that verse to himself or others, you’re probably out of luck. What you’re doing is no different from including that song in a movie. You need permission and that may mean payment

I’d suggest making a reasonable effort to locate who owns the rights and contacting them. It might be the writer’s family and they might be flattered by the attention, giving permission for free. If not, you’ll probably be entering the domain of greedy lawyers, where it’d be wisest to give up.

Then, as Ahab has suggested, you’d be better off finding lyrics old enough to be in the public domain.

I might add that the hassles of getting permission are one reason why long copyright periods may actually not benefit most writers. The typical writer enters a period in which his or her writings are little read since they’re no longer contemporary or being promoted by a publisher who, at best, considers them “backlist.” They then get a second chance when the copyright expires and anyone can publish—or today more likely post online—what they wrote.

For an illustration, go to a public domain website like this one:

And look at a list of their most popular books. All or almost all will be quite well written, but would be little read today because there’s no one promoting them. Make them free and easy to get, though, and quite a few people read them or listen to them as audiobooks. People even help to create carefully proofed texts and read for audiobook versions.

For an example, I’m current listening to this audiobook as my bedtime story: … ton-leroux

It’s a marvelous tale, but I’d have probably never heard about the book or its author if it weren’t so easily available in the public domain. It may even real more of his tales. He won’t get a penny, but then he died in 1927, so what does it matter? The public domain has given him a reading legacy.

Finally, keep in mind that fair use law is extraordinarily complex and deliberately intended to require the weighing of multiple factors. Years ago, the Tolkien estate challenged my day-by-day The Lord of Rings chronology, arguing quite correctly that my book not only gives away the plot, it includes every plot element in the book. I won in Seattle federal court thanks to my fair use arguments. If you’d like to read those arguments, I repackaged them as the book’s last chapter when it was published.

They won’t help with those song lyrics though. Like I said, every fair use dispute is different.

–Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

Thank you, everyone. You’ve given me such thoughtful and useful answers. And possibly saved my bacon.

The lyric plays no part in the story itself but rather is intended as an ironic counterpoint to the action - the lyric is chirpy and positive while the action is dark, nasty and intended to be scary.

This is another example of why this is such a great community - thoughtful, interesting and informative dialogue and people who are always willing to help.

Thanks again, everyone.

The agent I’m hoping to work with on my novel asked me to keep track of any text for which her office may need to secure rights (e.g. pop-songs, tv-show references, etc.). The way the novel is written, it necessarily refers to a lot of pop culture material.

In Scrivener, what the best approach to keeping track of pop-culture material?

I’m looking at tags, comments, footnotes … but it seems that when I export comments and footnotes, it only gives me my own comment - rather then the text I’d selected before adding the comment. I don’t need to see the tags as I read - but just want to keep track for down the road when it’s needed.

What works best here for tagging or noting text as I revise - so that I maintain an exportable list of pop-culture references/quotes?