Can I use that?

Some thoughts on the use of song lyrics and other copyrighted material in fiction or other media.

This weekend the subject of quoting song lyrics in works of fiction came up in conversation with another writer. He wanted to know whether he would be allowed to quote lines from a series of Alice Cooper songs in his short story and comic anthology.

I said it’s something of a grey area. There’s no such thing as fair use rights in UK copyright law as there is in the US, something that many producers of UK media fall foul of. In the case of song lyrics I think it depends largely on who owns the rights to the lyrics, which, for a well known song is likely a big record label, in which case you’re screwed. But, if it’s a smaller artist working under an indie label, well they might see the “free publicity” argument.

It’s the same with image rights, permission to use a location in film making or licensing music. In most cases the bigger the rights holder the more work you’ll have to do to secure permission and the more you’ll have offer in return in terms of up front payment, restricted usage rights or royalties.

In a moment of perfect timing, this Guardian article on the same subject turned up in a forum thread the day after I was talking about it. It’s worth a read, because it will definitely make you think twice about incorporating copyrighted material in your work!

Blake Morrison on the cost of quoting lyrics

My advice is to air on the side of caution with any material owned by someone else; if you don’t have a cast iron statement saying you can use it, don’t. “I didn’t think anyone would mind or notice” doesn’t tend to hold up well in court.

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