Using Song Lyrics in your Manuscript
You’ve just written the most perfect restaurant love scene imaginable. As your two main characters unite on the dance floor, the haunting strains of “Unchained Melody” play in the background. The lovers gaze deeply into each other’s eyes as the song’s lyrics pass through their ears, melding their souls together in acoustical rapture:
Wait! Stop! Halt!! Turn off the radio, unplug the phonograph, and disconnect your online radio station! Are you crazy? Are you looking for a lawsuit?
<Author looks around incredulously>
“Who, me? Now what does this woman want me to do? Eliminate the perfect words from this scene?”
Yep, that’s exactly what I want you to do. You’re not alone, Mr. or Ms. Author, in wanting to use those or any other fabulous lyrics in your book. I know they fit the situation wonderfully, but trust me, there are good and valid reasons why you should cut those lyrics out of your book.
First, the music industry does not consider ANY use of lyrics to be under the “fair use” guidelines. You cannot quote lyrics from a song without the permission from the singer, songwriter, and/or recording studio. Getting permission can be expensive and difficult, especially if any of the parties have passed away and you have to deal with multiple estates and/or heirs.
According to this article (http://www.writing-world.com/dawn/lyrics.shtml), one author paid $1,500 to quote two lines from a Bob Marley song. Yikes! Many authors feel $500 is too much to pay for copyediting. To quote two lines from that one song, the author could have had their book copyedited three times.
Some authors have gotten around this problem of getting permission by writing song lyrics themselves. But that solution has issues, too. If you wrote your own lyrics and I didn’t, as a reader and at first glance, recognize the lyrics you were quoting, my brain would be instantly taken out of your story (always, always a bad thing) in trying to figure out what song the lyrics were from. I might even put down the book and go Google it. Aaack!
If you did get permission for lyrics and, as a reader, I did recognize them (such as in “I Shot the Sherriff,” the above-mentioned Bob Marley song), now I might be stuck with the song in my head, drowning out the story. Is your brain singing that song right now? Give it a minute… Ahh, there it is. This is another bad thing to interrupt your story.
A third result may be the reader doesn’t get the same emotional connection you intended. The song might hit the reader in a way that’s contrary to what you envisioned and can cause emotional confusion, again taking the reader out of the story.
I hope this explains good reasons for not using lyrics in your manuscript and why perhaps a better fleshing-out of the scene would be an improvement for you and your readers.
It’s still your decision, of course, but at least now you have fair warning. If you feel strongly enough about using them to pursue it, this blog post offers good information about getting permission to quote: http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2013/03/so-you-want-to-use-song-lyrics-in-your.html.
ADDED 29 March 2015:
NEW INFORMATION ON GETTING PERMISSION TO USE SONG LYRICS:
This new blog post just came out and offers additional, excellent information on getting permission:
We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!
Owner, Adirondack Editing