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5 Steps to Reprinting Song Lyrics Without Getting Sued

Some years ago, an aspiring novelist told me his main character had a penchant for speaking in song lyrics. I found this idea intriguing—and certainly quirky … although it could get annoying both for the other characters and the reader after awhile. Besides which, it would be horrendously expensive to get the book published.

When I mentioned this last bit of information, he stared at me and asked why that would make the book any more expensive to print than any other book.

To be fair, up until about 15 years ago, I might have asked the same question, myself. Fortunately, one morning in late 2002, I happened across an item in the local newspaper about a meeting of the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA). Kitty Schooley, the guest speaker at that month’s session, would be discussing how to secure permission to reprint song lyrics in a book.

Fantastic! I’d been working on a novel and had hoped to reprint a few sets of song lyrics, but I had no idea how to go about doing that, from a legal standpoint. I knew I couldn’t simply use the lyrics without permission, but I’d never actually given much thought to what the process would look like.

That meeting was a turning point in my writing life. I had the opportunity to meet Kitty after her talk (and we remain friends to this day), and network with other aspiring authors. It was wonderful to know I wasn’t alone in my dreams of getting published! I joined CAPA that day and remained an active member until we left Connecticut in 2013. If you do nothing else to advance your literary aspirations, I strongly recommend you join, and become active in, a professional association for writers in your area. If you can’t join an in-person group, IFW is starting a virtual one.

Obtaining permission to reprint song lyrics in your book (either fiction or nonfiction) isn’t difficult; but it can be time consuming. Here are five steps to securing permission.

Step 1.
Identify the copyright holder. This is not necessarily the songwriter or the artist who performed the song. You could try an online search for “publisher” paired with the song title. Or, you can go right to one of the major song-publishing houses: Hal Leonard Permissions, Alfred Music, ASCAP, BMI, SESAC or SOCAN (in Canada). For a comprehensive listing of music-publishing houses, you could check out the Music Publishers Association of the United States.

When I was ready to publish my novel, Glimpse of Emerald, I had the lyrics to “Together in Electric Dreams” in their entirety and snippets of “Money Changes Everything” included in my manuscript. I needed to secure two sets of permissions. I knew (from prior experience) Hal Leonard Permissions was probably my best bet to start with. My hunch paid off. They held the rights to “Money Changes Everything” and 50% of “Together in Electric Dreams” … and it wouldn’t cost me too much for permission to cover their controlling interests in those two compositions—for up to 10,000 copies.

But I had to unearth the folks who owned the other 50% of “Together in Electric Dreams.” I emailed my contact at Hal Leonard, who apologized for not having advised me of the other party previously. After doing some research, she told me Alfred Music held the remaining 50% share.

When I followed up, Alfred Music agreed to let me reprint the lyrics for an additional sum, for up to 2,000 copies of the book.

Step 2.
Make your reprint request via the publisher’s online submission page. You’ll be asked to provide some basic information about your book, including:
•    Title
•    Publisher
•    Expected publication date
•    Retail price
•    Anticipated print run
•    Scope of distribution (i.e., U.S., North America, Europe, worldwide)
•    Lyrics (or excerpt thereof) as they will appear. Companies will likely request three manuscript pages—a page and a half both before and after the lyrics in question.

Step 3.
Be prepared to wait up to four to six weeks for a response. They tell you this to cover themselves. In my experience, they’ve generally replied within two weeks—and once, within three days.

You may be thinking this four- to six-week timeframe will give you time to get a second job to pay for those reprint rights. Don’t worry; the most I’ve ever had to pay a publisher for a composition is $100, for up to 10,000 copies. That comes out to a mere 10¢ per copy … quite reasonable, when you think about it.

Step 4.
The publisher will contact you with the dollar amount for permission to reprint the lyrics you wish to use. This assumes they hold 100% of the rights to the composition; if there’s a second (or third) copyright holder, you must repeat these steps with each company.

When you receive their cost associated with reprint permission, you may do one of two things. If it’s more than you were anticipating paying, you might rethink whether the lyrics in question are crucial to the story. If not, you may be able to do a simple rewrite of that portion of the manuscript, to work around the song lyrics. In Glimpse of Emerald, the lyrics to the song Gary used as a closing theme to his radio show every day (“Together in Electric Dreams”) were written out and given to him by a coworker at a key point in his life; the book wouldn’t necessarily have suffered without them, but I felt it was worth it to include them. And the snippets of “Money Changes Everything” were absolutely critical to the storyline.

Once permission is granted, you’ll submit payment and wait for them to send a partially executed contract, spelling out the details of the agreement and specifying how the permission-grant wording should read in the front matter of your book. This can take upwards of a month or more. Often, the contract will stipulate you also send a complimentary copy upon publication.

Step 5.
Sign and return the contract (keeping a copy for your records), publish your book, send the complimentary copy to the publishing company, and keep track of how many copies of your book you’ve had printed—so you don’t exceed your contracted number. As you approach that figure, contact the publishing company again to secure permission for additional copies.

That’s it. Pretty straightforward stuff. So next time you hear someone fretting over how to go about obtaining permission to reprint song lyrics in a book, you can confidently say, “Ah, that’s so easy—I can walk you through it in five easy steps.” And you can do just that.

Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in October.

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