Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Don't quote me on that.

Someday, I'd like to set the tone for a story by kicking it off with a quote from Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen.

Like this:

What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

--Neil Young, "Ohio"

Or this:

They declared me unfit to live
said into that great void my soul'd be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world

--Bruce Springsteen, "Nebraska"

But how do you go about including someone else's song lyrics in your own work? What type of permissions do you need? I did a little research. Basically, you need to secure permission from the artist or copyright owner. And with today's convoluted song ownership structure (I just made that up; I have nothing to base it on other than the Michael Jackson/Beatles thing), it can be hard to track down the person who can actually say Yes. And you may have to pay a licensing fee, which, if the authors are named Lennon and McCartney and you're a first-time novelist, could be prohibitively high.

Now, if the quote falls under the legal doctrine "fair use" you can use it without permission. But --surprise -- it's a gray area. Generally, you can invoke "fair use" if the material is used for non-profit and/or educational purposes, if the amount quoted is small in relation to the entire copyrighted work --or if the quote is really old. So you can quote the Bible, but not The Boss. Finally, it's worth noting that "acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission."

I took that quote from the Copyright Office's website; I hope I can use it without their permission.


  1. "I went insane
    Like a smoke ring day
    When the wind blows."

    -Neil Young
    On The Way Home

  2. So many good lyrics to choose from.

    Some guys they just give up living
    And start dying little by little, piece by piece
    Some guys come home from work and wash up
    And go racin' in the street

    - Bruce