Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I’ve been promising an article on the use of lyrics and poetry in novels for a long time. The topic comes up every time a writer asks how to punctuate or format song lyrics or poetry in their stories.
Typically writers are asking about the use of someone else’s lyrics or poems, not their own. So the first issue a writer has to deal with is that of copyright. And talk of copyrights (in the U.S.) leads to the Fair Use Doctrine.
I am not a lawyer, nor am I an expert on copyright law. My purpose in this article is to remind you that there are laws regarding the use of copyrighted materials and that you should learn something about the subject before you include lyrics or poetry in your stories.
An appropriate place to begin your study of U. S. copyright laws is with the Copyright Office. Chapter One, sections 106 and 107 are especially pertinent.
Information on copyright acts and laws in the United Kingdom can be found at Gov.uk. Intellectual Property (IP) infringement is the place to start for U.K. rules and laws.
While some of my references to copyright law may be accurate in multiple countries, my focus here is on U.S. law.
Copyright and Fair Use
Copyright is automatically given to an author when a work is created. The copyright for anything written after January 1, 1978, is valid for the life of the author plus 70 years after his or her death. For works written before that time, the term length of the copyright can vary. See Chapter 3 of the Copyright Act for specifics.
For writers wanting to use the words of another, the point is that the other writers, be they novelists, songwriters, or poets, have the right to control and limit the use of their creative efforts. A novelist cannot simply quote the work of another in his stories without giving thought to copyright as well as attribution.
If a work still has a valid copyright, the copyright holder (usually, although not always the author) has rights regarding who can use all or portions of the copyrighted material. Thus the copyright holder usually has final say about who can use his works, the manner in which they can be used, and the length of use.
Yet the Doctrine of Fair Use, part of the U.S. Copyright Law, allows others to use copyrighted materials for specific purposes, but only under certain conditions. So, for example, reviewers, scholars, and teachers can all use copyrighted materials without infringing the copyright. Still, even these permitted uses are limited.
For writers wanting to quote another writer (from a story, essay, song, poetry, or other copyrighted text), the first step is to check is the copyright. If a work is under copyright protection, the writer should consider asking the copyright holder for permission to quote from the protected work. The problem with this is that obtaining permission can be time consuming. The copyright owner doesn’t have to answer you or may take six months to get back to you.
And he may deny your request when he does get back to you.
And if he grants permission to use his words, he may charge you for that use.
Could you proceed without permission? You could, but that course may open you up to a lawsuit. If you intend to publish through a large publisher, they may help you seek authorization to use copyrighted material. On the other hand, the publisher may ask you to change the text you’re quoting so they don’t have to deal with permissions. They may already know that particular copyright holders do not grant permission to use their protected works.
You could also proceed with your use of copyrighted material, intending to claim allowance under the Fair Use Doctrine if you’re ever challenged. However, a few limitations of Fair Use may result in an outcome unfavorable to you.
Fair Use looks at the use and asks whether it’s intended for a commercial product or for educational use. If you plan to sell books that quote the work of others, that’s commercial use. The claim of Fair Use may not go your way in such circumstances.
Another consideration of specific interest to those who want to quote lyrics and poems is a different section of the Fair Use Doctrine. This second Fair Use determiner looks at the amount of quoted text used in proportion to the copyrighted work as a whole. There’s quite a difference between quoting one 25-word line from a 100,000-word novel or script and quoting twenty-five words from a 100-word poem or a 250-word song.
This is one very strong reason for novelists to not quote from copyrighted songs and poems without permission—your use of lyric or poem is not likely to pass the Fair Use test.
Looked at another way, why should writers get to use the work of another writer for their own gain? If a songwriter or performer has success with a song, why does the novelist have the right to take advantage of the popularity of that other work to advance his or her own work? The short answer is that the novelist has no right to trade on the hard work and popularity of others without obtaining permission and paying compensation. (My opinion, not a legal one.)
A third area Fair Use looks at is the substance of the quoted material. It’s typically not a Fair Use to quote the heart of another work without permission, and especially if doing so affects the market value of the copyrighted work. If your use of quoted material might hurt the sales of the quoted material because it gives away the key components of the source material, it’s likely that a Fair Use defense will not work for you.
As I said, I’m not a lawyer. I tried to take the legalese out of this information, but if you intend to quote from any copyrighted sources, check out the copyright laws. I’m especially concerned with the use of songs and poems in this article because quoting single lines from longer works may not be challenged the same way the use of quotes from shorter works would be. That is, from what I’ve read, even the most conservative observers seem to not worry about quoting a single line from another full-length fiction work. It’s quoting shorter works that can cause problems for the novelist. And I don’t want you to remain unaware that you could face a lawsuit if you don’t acquire the proper permissions because you don’t understand copyright laws.
No matter what you end up doing in terms of getting permission, always include attributions for quoted materials. And don’t try to pass off the words of others as your own; that’s plagiarism. While plagiarism is an issue of ethics rather than the law, it can lead to lawsuits concerning copyrights.
The conclusion? To use material from copyrighted works, get permission and include attributions.
You are, of course, legally free to use works that are in the public domain and for which no one owns the copyright. Still, however, you don’t want to plagiarize. Don’t pass off the work of someone else as your own—include attributions and an acknowledgement of all material not original to you and even material not original to the project. That is, if you’re quoting yourself, including an acknowledgement of the original work.
Note: Ideas cannot be copyrighted; it’s the expression of those ideas that receives copyright protection. So you can’t copyright your idea of a story about the theft and ransom of the International Space Station, but you can copyright the story you write based on that idea.
Book titles also cannot be copyrighted, though you could apply for a trademark for a title.
A Major Reason to Not Include Actual Lyrics
In addition to questions of copyright, there are other reasons not to use the words of others in your stories. And that, more than rights and fair use, is what I want to address.
If you use existing songs and poetry, typically because you have some strong reaction to the words, you need to know that you can’t control your readers’ responses to that song or poem. Readers might have negative memories or connotations linked to the same song or poem; not everyone will have the same connections that you have. Readers might have memories that lead them 180 degrees from where you want them to go when they read those words in your story.
When you introduce an actual song or poem, you may send readers to other songs, to other places, to different eras—all times and places outside your story. Readers go to their connections to a song, not yours. They are reminded of emotions linked to their memories of the song, not the emotion you want to rouse in them.
Writers often try to induce nostalgia by including song lyrics, but other than your own, you can’t know the emotions and memories linked to a song.
Maybe half your readers hate a song because it was played ad nauseam by a parent or older sibling or used by a political party they disagree with or included in an obnoxious TV commercial or because it had once been “their song” before they broke up with a first love.
Maybe you’re including words from a famous country (or rock or hip hop or whatever) song, and half your readers hate that music genre.
The point is, with someone else’s song and words, you can’t control your readers’ responses. You may unintentionally create a mood opposite to the one you intended to create. Or you may send readers off to reminisce rather than pull them deeper into the story.
The words of another writer will always be outside your fiction. They will always be something other. If you have to include a song or poem, why not write your own lyrics and poetry to keep readers inside the fictional world? And better yet, don’t simply write out a verse and chorus or a stanza of a poem, but have a character make use of a single phrase or line or word that speaks to him.
If you have to refer to a real song or poem, show us a character’s reaction to the words. A bald listing of a verse, with no connection to a character, is a sure way to bring a story’s forward motion to a stop.
Let’s look at an example or two.
You could include a whole verse, unadorned and basic. How about a stanza from “A Visit from St. Nicholas”?
’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,
And Mama in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap
As soon as you include a song verse or poem’s stanza, you’ve identified it as something outside the narrative. Readers will approach it in a way different from the way they approach the story itself. Poems and songs have different cadences; we don’t read them the same way we do narrative and dialogue. Even the way the words sit on the page is different from the rest of the story.
If you include a verse in this manner, the reader has to figure out your purpose—why is this song here now? What does this poem have to do with anything? Which phrase is important? Which word?
You have successfully broken the rhythm, pace, direction, and flow of the narrative—not necessarily a positive accomplishment.
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t work around any problems introduced by including song lyrics or a poem. I am saying that there are ways to better blend a character’s connections to a song or poem than to simply include a block of text from the song or poem.
How To Include Lyrics or Poetry
If you do use a recognizable song or poem, put the words to work for the character and the scene by making the character—and not the reader—respond to the lyrics. If you include the whole stanza or verse, your intention, whether you acknowledge it or not, is to get a response from the reader. But if you instead include the character’s response to a song he hears or a poem he reads, you can reveal character, advance the plot, and influence the reader’s emotions all in the same moment and using the same bit of writing. And this is an outcome you definitely want.
So rather than including the entire first section of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” why not show your character’s reactions to the words he hears or sees?
For this example, Paul is a detective, and he’s in his car.
Paul turned up the radio at the deep voice reciting Clement Moore’s ode to St. Nick. The speaker was in some downtown bar, trying to score tickets to a Christmas show for his kids. All he had to do was get through the poem, without prompts from the very rowdy, possibly drunk, crowd.
Paul shook his head. Once the parents in that crowd heard the latest, that another infant had been abducted right out of her bed, right out of the comfy home of sleeping parents, they might not be so quick to laugh at the idea of a strange man climbing into their houses.
He circled the cul-de-sac and parked, his eye going to the chimney of the house inside the crime-scene tape. No smoke coming out. Too bad that didn’t mean their kidnapper had gotten caught between the bricks.
They hadn’t been that lucky.
The wind whipped through Paul’s coat as he approached the door, mentally preparing to interrogate the grieving parents when he’d rather be locking up a suspect. At the porch he turned to look over the nearby houses. Moore’s words didn’t match the neighborhood scene. The new-fallen-snow bit was right, but there was no moon to light the nightscape. And no sound of approaching reindeer.
The night was black. And the sounds filling that blackness were the cries of devastated parents.
I used something like this second example in a comment here on the blog. I suggested that rather than quote Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” a writer have the character respond to what he was hearing.
I cranked up Lee Greenwood, blasting the song through the house. Then I lifted my glass.
“Yeah, I’m proud too, Lee.”
Or how about this one with its reference to a currently popular pop song—
Kelly lowered the volume and twisted to check out her backside, not wanting to be reminded once again that big butts were all the rage. Not only did she have no bass, but she had no treble to speak of either.
If you include references to songs and poetry in ways such as this, you don’t have to quote the songs and poems and thus wouldn’t have to obtain permission from the copyright holder. (You can include the name of songs and poems, as well as the names of the writers, in your text.) You also don’t stop the forward motion of the story by sticking in words written in a different format, such as a verse in block text. And you weave the pertinent elements from the songs into the fabric of the character’s actions and world. This is an integrated approach that allows the story to remain seamless, immune to cracks and distractions that lead to the real world, the one outside the fictional events.
Of course, if your references are too obscure, you run the chance of sending readers off to figure out what song you were talking about, which is just as bad as sending them off into their own memories. You don’t want readers running to the Internet to look up song references, but neither do you want them wandering off in their minds, traveling through memories of their own making and through other personal associations to a song or poem.
You also wouldn’t want to use this approach too often. No matter how well camouflaged, references to songs and poems still point to the world outside the fictional one. And too much of any device can become both noticeable and annoying.
In some circumstances, tapping into reader experiences can pull readers deeper into a story and create shared connections with characters. But linking to reader experiences could easily pull readers out and away from the story, if even only for a moment. When you’re trying to make connections with the reader, do you want to have him turning away from your story and looking elsewhere? You can’t control whether or not your fictional world and the emotional moment you’re working to create can withstand a comparison with actual events embellished by time and colored by the power of emotions experienced in a real-world setting. You can’t guarantee that readers will want to return to the fictional world after a jaunt to their memories.
Keep readers inside the story world by making your lyrics and poetry connect to the characters and events, not to outside events you have no control over.
Fake Lyric, Fake Poem
One way to keep readers inside your story world is to substitute your own lyrics and poetry for those of someone else.
A poem or lyric written for another purpose and by another person is not the best fit for your story—the words and sentiment do not fit character, setting, tone, rhythm, and story events the same way your own words would.
I typically counsel against including too many clichés for the same reason—clichés and phrases that fit other situations in a general way are not specific enough for your story. Unique and appropriate beat clichéd and common because unique phrases crafted solely for one work—one character, one character’s emotions, one once-in-a-lifetime situation or series of events—actually do fit. They fit all the story elements. They also don’t lead readers to thoughts of other stories that use the same phrases. And they give a story a unique voice that catches the reader’s attention.
Clichés can dull an otherwise fresh story. Borrowed lyrics do the same thing while also encouraging readers to step outside the fictional world and look at their own connections to a song or poem. Or if there is no connection because the reader doesn’t know the song, maybe a lyric draws a reader into a search for the unfamiliar song.
If you included your own lyrics, readers would continue to remain inside the fiction.
If you write your own lyrics and poetry, you won’t be tempted to take advantage of the hard work and reputation and connections of a songwriter or poet who has already proved his words were a success.
A writer often picks a song or poem precisely because someone else has already done the work, creating imagery and tapping at emotions. But for your books, that is your job. Rather than trade on the successes of others, come up with your own words that will be an exact fit for your needs, a fit for characters, emotions, mood, era, action events, rhythm, and even theme.
Yet even if you do include your own lyrics, do consider relating them to and through the characters, as I mentioned earlier. Weave the lyric into the fabric of the fiction. Then they no longer merely sit on top of the story without integration, an addition that refuses to blend, but they become a true part of the story, woven into multiple elements in a way that makes them hard to cut away.
I won’t be surprised to find that some don’t agree with me on some of what I’ve said here, but I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts