In my time helping other authors self-publish their books I have come across more than my share of authors who have full song lyrics in their books. As epitaphs at the beginning of chapters, as part of flashbacks in their memoir. As a comedic aside at the end of a dense chapter. Not all the lyrics have been related to Disney, but a lot of them have. Let’s dive into both elements of this and talk about potential solutions:
Song lyrics in books or other creative works: There are A LOT of articles out there on how you can legally incorporate song lyrics into your book. If the copyright on the song has expired, you are in the clear. If you want to use lyrics from Taylor Swift’s latest hit, then you are either going to have to make a formal request to her, as she owns the rights to all the songs on her latest album, and likely pay for the use of those lyrics. When you use song lyrics in your book, it is effectively the same as me playing that song in the background of this video. I would need to license that use.
So say that you decide that you REALLY need the lyrics in your book and you would be willing to pay for licensing, if you request permission and don’t ever hear back… guess what. You can’t use it.
In general, I say to avoid song lyrics altogether. First, you’re an author. Get creative with your own words. Second, the lyrics are copyright protected. But the song title isn’t. You can say, “I was driving along listening to X title by this artist and it made me think of…” Boom, problem solved.
This also applies to poems. Now you can quote a line or two from a poem so the reader can get the jist, but don’t include the ENTIRE thing.
(References: https://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/10/lyrics-in-books/, https://www.ingramspark.com/blog/quoting-song-lyrics-in-a-book-4-factors-fair-use, https://selfpublishingadvice.org/the-legal-use-of-song-lyrics-in-books-from-the-persepective-of-an-indie-author/, https://www.writersdigest.com/legal-questions/can-i-use-song-lyrics-in-my-manuscript)
Now let’s get to the second part of this equation which is Disney. Look, I love Disney. I can probably sing every word to the Little Mermaid right now with no prep because I watched it so many times as a child. But I won’t because I don’t want Disney to take this video down. So, Disney is one of, if not THE, largest IP holders in the world. They have to protect their IP against all potential claims. Effectively, if Disney said, “eh, it’s okay we won’t tell them to cease and desist” for even one unauthorized use of their IP, then any future claims could be thrown out. So that means that when your adorable five-year-old sings Let It Go from Frozen and you post it online and Disney tells you to take it down that they aren’t being evil or mean. They are making sure that if Universal or some other major movie producer tries to do the same that they have a leg to stand on. It’s the same reason why Stephen King has his Dollar Babies (https://stephenking.com/dollarbabies.php) He is clearly happy to let indie filmmakers use his large library, so he gives them a way to pay for the IP so he is covered when he needs to go after someone for infringement.
Here is the distinction though. The phrase “let it go” has been around much longer than the hit song. So your character can say in content to another, “dude, be like Elsa, just Let it go!” No problem. Your character can be marooned in Antarctica and say, “hmm, well the cold never bothered me anyway.” But you really shouldn’t have that character singing as they search for supplies about frozen fractals all around. Common phrases can still be used, but be realistic about what is common.
So, when you are working on your book and you have these perfect Disney song lyrics and you ABSOLUTELY must have them, I want you to stop and think about:
How long it will take you to make the formal request to use them and your likelihood and hearing back with an approval?
What you can budget for paying for the license?
How much are you able to budget for a lawyer?
OK, so now answer me this, just how important are those lyrics to the story or central thesis of your book?
That’s what I thought.
Music from: https://www.bensound.com/ E.R.F.
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