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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Song Lyrics and Copyright

So you are writing your novel or family memoir and you want to include the lyrics from the song played at your grandmother’s wedding or the songs from an opera that or that dance at the prom. Can you include the lyrics without infringing copyright? Can you name your book after a favourite song without infringing copyright?

Do you need to ask permission? 

The first thing to remember is that crediting or citing the source only protects you from being accused of plagiarism, it does not remove the obligation to seek permission for use.

Is the work in the public domain? 

Public domain means that there are no copyright or other legal restrictions.

According to the United States Copyright Office “for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.” Additionally, according to a guide by Stanford, works published in the United States before 1923 are also in the public domain.

In Canada “copyright lasts for the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies, plus 50 years following the end of that calendar year.” Refer to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office for more information.

Say you want to use Etta James’ song “At Last.” It was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren. Gordon died in 1959 so 1959+70 = 2029. Not in the public domain. 
Photograph shows interior view of hall with piles of copyright deposit materials on the floor in the Thomas Jefferson Building. circa 1898. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Does fair use/fair dealing apply? 

In the United States you are allowed to quote a few lines from a full-length book, without seeking permission IF, here is the big IF, your use is for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”

Does your novel or memoir fall into those categories? No.

In Canada, the similar law is called fair dealing: Use of works for purposes of private study, research, criticism, review or news reporting that does not constitute infringement of copyright.

Does your novel or memoir fall into those categories? No.

Can I call my book "At Last"?

If you want to refer to the name of a song in your writing that is ok as titles are considered facts.
However using the title as part of the title of your book would be capitalize on the popularity of the song and could be considered a copyright infringement.


I am not a lawyer and this is NOT legal advice.

Further Reading

So You Want to Use Song Lyrics in Your Novel? 5 Steps to Getting Rights to Lyrics
Jane Friedman: When Do You Need to Secure Permissions?
Brad Frazer: Is It Fair Use? 7 Questions to Ask Before Using Copyrighted Material
Pat McNees: Copyright, work for hire, and other rights issues
Hippy days of the internet are over


Canadian Intellectual Property Office
Search records of registered books, music, art, and periodicals, and other works. Includes copyright ownership documents. US Copyright Office

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