Fair Use or Copyright Infringement

AllRightsReservedThe other day, a fellow Boomer Lit author tweeted about using song lyrics in novels and since this is a subject that I am interested in (because I like to, or would like to, quote lyrics) I decided to read it. It was very clear and well-written so thank you very much to Anne R Allen and Michael Murphy for compiling this informational blog post.

Since I was getting ready to send the first of three novels back up to Smashwords, after finding little punctuation errors and some issues with chapter breaks, I decided to get rid of all my quoted song lyrics so that became part of my editing process too.

I am not sure about quoting song lyrics, especially older songs, but I do know that anything before 1923 is pretty much in the public domain. And I also know that it is perfectly fine to quote the titles of songs because titles can’t be copyrighted, Just the lyrics.

There is a way around this, though, which is to describe the lyrics but not quote them directly. I am not an expert on Fair Use but I don’t think anyone can complain about that, so I removed all quoted lyrics from Second Stories.

I had quoted some from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, which was an integral part of the story. All of the lyrics of this song are beautiful and it was hard to pick just part of that song to quote. I want very much to put them in but no, they’re out.

Lydia had told Geo how she felt about the Billy Joel song when they’d heard it performed one night by a tinkly piano player in a bar. This is what she said about it:

“I love this song,” she said. “Billy Joel did this.”

“I don’t remember it.”

“The lyrics are sweet, that you may be imperfect but I love you anyway and I wouldn’t want you to change because if you changed, then you wouldn’t be you, the one I love. It’s a song a man could sing to a woman, but not the other way around. The lyrics wouldn’t work, woman to man.”

“Why not?”

“Because women change to accommodate men. He’s telling her not to, because he wants her the way she is, but that isn’t usually the case. That’s why it’s such a romantic song. Because it doesn’t work that way in real life. It’s bullshit.”

Later on, when he is very desperate to win her back, and avert the divorce that is surely coming, he remembers what she said and makes a CD with that song recorded over and over. I so wanted to quote those lyrics.

But I described them instead:

She listened to the familiar lyrics, which she knew by heart, and thought yes, it was a very sweet gesture on his part. But to think the song could be considered  meaningful in any way with respect to their particular relationship was far from the truth. That she shouldn’t change, that she shouldn’t think he would want her to change, that he would love her in the hard times as well as the good times. None of that was true in their situation, and so a lot of the memories he might have hoped would be stirred in her, weren’t. Still, she had to acknowledge, it was a gift he had made for her, and he had made it with thoughts of her and what she might like, and she would accept it for what it was. Nothing more.

It is my understanding that this is acceptable to do and will not violate any copyright laws. If anyone knows otherwise, I would be grateful if we can start a conversation about it. It seems to be very nebulous, about whether it okay or not and what is Fair Use and what is not. Though it is always wiser to err on the side of safety, I think quoting the actual lyrics would be preferable, and more meaningful to the story.

Just for reference, here is a YouTube of Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are. Funny that I can include that with no problem but I can’t quote the lyrics in a novel.

I think this may be my favorite song of all time, which is why I wanted to incorporate it into the story.

5 thoughts on “Fair Use or Copyright Infringement

  1. This is very interesting and something I hadn’t thought of. I’ve never included song lyrics, but it’s good to be reminded of this in case I’m ever tempted. I don’t know the answer to your question, but it would seem to me just having a discussion on the lyrics wouldn’t be violating copyright unless maybe one transforms them (not that I really understand that whole ‘derivative work’ thing either).

  2. I have used a line from a few 1960’s songs in Goodbye Junie Moon. Don’t see how the composers would gain anything by suing me though.
    Enjoyed the music. One of my favorites too. We USED TO sing about love.

    • It always seemed to me that they might be actually glad to see that writers were quoting their lyrics, and that it might even bring increased interest to the music, but I guess that isn’t the case. And if some artists just want to be PITAs about it, what can you do? Yes, we USED to sing about love. Now we sing about, well, never mind.

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