I told this story a while ago, but for those who came in late, here’s the short version.
Was at a book club speaking about Early ReTyrement. The questions were fun; how come I was so clever? How come I was so smart? And then came the question: Isn’t Dion’s The Wanderer a copyrighted musical work?
How my heart chilled at that. Was it? I didn’t know.
You can see how I used it HERE – it’s rather a critical component of my first chapter, the moment that tells us that this is a time travel book and a humorous one at that, the scene that, if this was made into a movie, it would really get the audience smiling.
But are the lyrics copyrighted?
I checked online for advice from other writers on this. I can put it plainly in one writer’s comments – DON’T DON’T DON’T! The more I looked into this, the more I realized I could get sued, really sued.
And let’s discount those little fantasies where we appear before a judge and say, “Look, its only a self-published piece of fiction. Be reasonable.” The law isn’t reasonable. The law is the law.
Yes, it’s reasonable that what I did could count as product placement, and that perhaps one or two readers actually went out and bought it after fondly remembering that song. But no, if there was a copyright, I’d just violated it. This caused many sleepless nights. If you’ve ever woke up in an icy sweat over a business deal teetering over you, you’ll know the feeling.
Called around to a couple of clearance agents. One told me that the song was fine, that it appeared on a site that listed public domain songs. Whew. Then I looked a little further into this and downloaded the lyrics. Guess what. There was another song written ages ago, another Wanderer, not my Wanderer, so that wasn’t right. My reprieve was temporary. I was back in the danger zone.
I finally contacted a west coast clearance agent and told them exactly what I wanted – research and, if needed, clearance. They looked into it and found that, domestically, Dion’s The Wanderer was cleared as public domain. But internationally, it wasn’t. Now I’m sure I’ve got some Dutch guy sitting amongst the tulips somewhere, reading my book. That would be all it took. So I gave them the go ahead, and several hundred dollars later I got the rights Warner Music Group. Whew.
Yes, Steven King uses lyrics all the time. So do a number of other authors. But they are getting these rights paid out of their big royalty checks (heck, the music houses probably step back and say, “Sure, go right ahead”). But if you are a small author, I strongly suggest (because I cannot slap goddamn sense into you) never to do this unless it’s so critical that you do that you are willing to pay over $500 for this right (and for a limited number of copies at that). Otherwise, don’t do it. Work around it. Make your own haunting lyrics. Imply it. Hint at it. But don’t quote it.
If you need further convincing, check out this wonderful movie, Sita Sings the Blues. Here, the animator thought that jazz songs out of the ’20s were public domain. Turns out she was wrong. Now she relies on donations, and probably only makes a fraction of what she put into this film. When you read her postings when this was going on, you could sense the creative pain she felt when she came to the decision that she’d created a wondrous artistic disaster, one that would cost her in the long run. Remember this lesson.
Don’t wait until someone asks you at a book signing about it.
Or worse, when you get a phone call from the lawyers of some gigantic media conglomerate.