You might think song lyrics are perfectly fine to use in your novel. Using a stunning song lyric can be a wonderful way to convey a mood or tone. However, song lyrics are absolutely covered by copyright law. Since songs are so short, ANY use of lyrics becomes a copyright infringement. While you might quote a line or two from a full-length novel and have it be just a tiny portion of the full work, if you quote a verse from a song you’re giving away a large chunk of the work without permission.
It’s important to understand the law. Song lyric lawyers make quite a lot of money by searching for violators and bringing them to court.
Basics of Song Lyric Copyright
Let me note that I’m not a lawyer. This is my own research from years and years of researching and publishing.
Also, I am not discussing the RECORDING (music) copyright issues. Those get really complicated with each new performance, each new mastering, and so on. I’m solely focused on an author using lyrics in their work. That is my area of interest.
Let me take, as my example, “The Lady Is a Tramp” from the 1937 Rogers and Hart musical Babes in Arms. The team of Rogers and Hart were stunning. Both of them were Jewish men who changed their names to fit in better with American society. Lorenz Hart was gay and had added challenges in the 1930s. He sadly passed away in 1943, at which point Rogers went on to work with Hammerstein, where he had additional success, but Hammerstein was never the wordsmith that Hart was.
My dear friend Melinda sung “The Lady Is a Tramp” at a high school talent show and was stunning with it. So this is a song that’s always near to my heart.
In the late 1930s, Rogers and Hart were in enormous demand and were feverishly creating, from scratch, two full musicals every year for Broadway. Babes in Arms went live on April 14, 1937. All accounts are that these two geniuses created the entire story from scratch in early 1937. Hart was the lyricist, while Rogers was the musical composer. The writing date of the lyrics for “The Lady Is a Tramp” is early 1937. Absent a specific known date, it of course had to have been written by April 14, 1937 as it was being performed on that date.
So what is the copyright status for those lyrics?
US Song Lyric Copyright
Copyright issues in the US are complicated because of Disney. Every time Mickey Mouse is threatened to go out of copyright, Disney steps in and tries to get laws changed to protect him. The US government caved a number of times before finally drawing a line. So the way US copyright law applies depends on when something was written.
We don’t care (for this exercise, at least) about what the laws were in the 1700s or 1800s. We’re just focused on what we, as modern authors, have legal access to use in our works.
Song Lyrics Written Before January 1 1978 under US Law
Again, we’re not talking about what authors had to worry about before 1978. We’re solely focused on what a modern-day author has to think about for works they want to quote which were written before January 1, 1978.
If the work was written before January 1, 1978, and its copyright expired BEFORE January 1, 1978, then that work is in public domain. So Pride and Prejudice, which was published way back on January 28, 1813, is long out of copyright. You can do whatever you want with it. It’s worth noting that morally and ethically that you should not publish it and claim you wrote it. But you can certainly quote it to your heart’s content and rework it to include vampires, werewolves, or whatever else strikes your fancy.
The rule as of January 1, 1978 was that a piece had protection for 75 years from the date of publication. So that means anything written before January 1, 1903 was completely fair game as of that date.
If the work was written before January 1, 1978, and the copyright did NOT expire before January 1, 1978, it gained another 20 years of protective shelter. That meant works now had 95 years of protection. Again, thank Disney for this huge problem. That means suddenly as of 1978 that a giant moratorium of copyright slammed the industry. That did not loosen up for decades. That is why January 1, 2018 became a huge deal. The phrase “Public Domain Day” became important. Things which had been held under copyright for a long, long time suddenly flooded the system.
Part of what also made this important was the skyrocketing growth of self publishing. All of these authors eager to use the Wizard of Oz, Cthulhu, and other works finally had access to them.
So in this example, “The Lady Is a Tramp” was written in 1937. Under the original 75 years rule it wouldn’t have been public domain until 1937+75 = 2012. Since it was still covered by copyright when the rules changed on January 1, 1978, that means it got that automatic extension applied. It now gets 95 years of protection. That means 1937+95 = January 1, 2032 is when this piece comes out of copyright and becomes available.
Note that copyright works in round years. So what matters is which year the piece was written or published in. That then rounds out to January 1 of the releasing year.
Song Lyrics Written After January 1 1978 in US Copyright Law
Any work written after January 1, 1978 has a timeline not based on the writing or publishing date. Maybe that was too hard for people to figure out concretely. It is based on the DEATH DATE of the author, which is usually much more final. The work is protected for a full 70 years after the author dies. So authors need to hope they live a long, long time to protect their estates.
Lorenz Hart died in 1943. Not that it matters, since the rule for his works are covered by his publication/writing date, but if he was covered by an author death date, that would be 1943+70=2013.
Song Lyrics in UK Copyright Law
The UK tends to have much simpler copyright laws, probably because they don’t have Disney corporate lawyers trying to muck things up every five minutes.
In the UK, song lyrics are copyrighted for 70 years after the author’s death. If the author is unknown, the time length is 70 years after the known date of creation.
So again with Lorenz Hart, he died in 1943. 70 years after his death would be 1943+70=2013. So all of his works, whenever he wrote them, are now in public domain in the UK.
What If Lyrics are Public Domain in One Country and Under Copyright in Another?
This is a complicated issue that used to not matter. It used to be clear. If you published a book in the US, at a US publishing house, it was bound by US law.
The current problem is that few things are published “in one place”. If you have a Kindle book, it is sold around the world. If you self-publish a book on Amazon, that book is “printed” in many countries depending on who buys it. The book is printed in a local place and sent to that local buyer.
Websites are even more complicated. Servers can exist cross-country to give fast website speed. If your source server is in the US, but you have cloud servers in the UK, Germany, and South Africa for speed boosting, just where is the content coming from?
It’s generally wise to make sure your lyric-based content is public domain in most major markets before you start using its information. You don’t want to get into a situation where your use of lyrics is perfectly fine in Germany but is wholly illegal in the US.
Publishers can’t hide easily in modern times. A quick google search lets lawyers keep an eye on their intellectual properties at the click of a button. If they get paid based on how many cases they file a year, it’s in their vested interest to track down every small author they can find who is illegally using the work. They “seem better lawyers” if they show that they found 100 people stealing the content, vs getting paid a retainer fee and only finding 2 thefts for that money.
Err on the side of safety. Lawyers like to sue. It makes them money. Authors tend to go bankrupt.
It’s important to take copyright seriously. All of us want our works used in a way in which we approve. It’s proper that we afford those same rights to the authors we work with and benefit from.
Ask with any questions!