Using song lyrics in writing?


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Thread: Using song lyrics in writing?

  1. #1

    Using song lyrics in writing?

    [So, apologies in advance for redundancy. I admittedly already posted this, but the topic got kinda buried, and it was off topic anyways.]

    How would one go about putting diegetic music into literature? I suppose that term doesn't quite fit here, since the readers can't hear it, but I don't know what else one would call it. Basically in this scene, I have a song come on over a radio, and want to write the first stanza, which then sparks a conversation between the two characters speaking. How would I go about doing that non-awkwardly? I've put it as a block quote here, just to highlight the lyrics, but that's not how I'm for sure going to do it.


    “Of course it’s boring, Craig! That’s what we’re hoping for, I don’t want shit to go down, or else that gives me more paperwork!” “Yeah, I getcha, Cliff… But can’t we at least turn on the radio or something?” “Well, we’re not supposed to…” Cliff looked down at the radio pensively, the allure of stupid catchy pop-rock drawing him ever closer. “…but what the hell! Alright, 3 2 1 let’s Jam!” Cliff switched on the radio with an overly percussive vigor and tuned to a local rock station. Craig immediately perked up. “Aw yeah! Now you’re speaking my language, love this tune!”

    “Gretchen, my girlfriend’s stepmom
    works as the manager at the store
    she calls my line, late at night
    to keep me from getting bored”


    “That’s the fuckin life, man.” Cliff said rather wistfully. “What? Working in a grocery store? Trying your best not to fall asleep? Seems like a shit job to me…” Cliff looked flustered at Craig’s low appraisal. “Nah, nah. I’m talking’ having a hot older chick like that looking after you.” “Older women, eh?” As Craig turned on fifty, the charm of an older woman began to become lost on him. At this point, a hot milf relative to his age would be about eighty. There’s nothing seductive about that. Cliff, on the other hand, was young, About twenty three. Part of Craig could understand his viewpoint, but then again, he didn’t really care. “What, you need a sugar mommy? I’m sure I could find you one, you short on cash again? That’s the price you pay for all your stylish suits.”



    It's my story, Mom! I can put a Cowboy Bebop reference in if I want!
    If online, I'm probably procrastinating something...

  2. #2
    If the song is copyrighted, you can only use the titles. Songs released before 1923 are in the public domain. Those after are copyrighted.

  3. #3
    Member Irwin's Avatar
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    Technically, I believe you're supposed to blockquote them, but I've seen it indented and italicised without quotes. As long as it's clear that they're lyrics, you're probably good.

  4. #4
    Member hvysmker's Avatar
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    I've done it occasionally, with both music and copyrighted poetry, for no other reason than as a whim. Not the entire thing and I do give the author credit. This is the first time I've seen it questioned.

    In most cases I copy and paste it from from the Internet.
    Last edited by hvysmker; February 15th, 2020 at 10:38 PM.

  5. #5
    Member Sir-KP's Avatar
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    I also put a couple of snippet of Jingle Bell song lyrics (as was sung by Frank Sinatra), will I get into trouble? lol

    I mean, the song was quite crucial to the scene. It was Christmas Eve and the song was meant to be played out loud to cover some 'very loud noise'.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Sir-KP View Post
    I also put a couple of snippet of Jingle Bell song lyrics (as was sung by Frank Sinatra), will I get into trouble? lol

    I mean, the song was quite crucial to the scene. It was Christmas Eve and the song was meant to be played out loud to cover some 'very loud noise'.
    Jingle Bells is public domain. Since you're not actually producing the Frank Sinatra version, you're perfectly safe. There's a difference between his version and saying that he's singing.

  7. #7
    Just put the lyrics in -- without quote marks, unless it is actually being spoken -- and italicize it. If quoting more than a couple words, put them into their own indented block:

    As Ted drove down the road, the radio came on. The song was an old one, one that took him back years.

    When the night has come...and the land is dark...and the moon is the only light we see
    No I won't be afraid...No I won't be afraid...Just as long as you stand by me

    He began to drum his fingers on the wheel, cranking the volume wheel up until the car shook.
    As far as the 'will I be sued?' bullshit, the answer is an almost certain no. Fair use guarantees the use of copyrighted material in non-published works, so the question isn't even relevant unless and until you publish, in which case you will likely have the publisher's legal apparatus review and change if needed. I can post all the song lyrics on this forum I want because there is no commercial benefit to them.

    Even disregarding that, like if you're self-publishing, unless you're quoting a significant amount of material and the copyright owner has enough of a problem with it to bother filing legal charges (which costs money) you're not going to have a problem, realistically. It's also significantly less likely to be problem if there is no possibility of people thinking you wrote them -- if you cite the source or if the song is just so well known.

    Remember, in order for something to be legally actionable under U.S civil law there needs to be a plaintiff who really gives a shit and is willing to pay their lawyer to go after the writer and potentially prove in a courtroom that the use damaged them. That's not impossible, but it's extremely unlikely that any book short of a bestseller will do that.

  8. #8
    Member Irwin's Avatar
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    If you wait 70 years, the copyright will expire. Otherwise, don't use somebody else's work. It's stealing.

    You're a writer, so write your own lyrics, for crap sake. It's not that hard.

    My novel is set in the '70s, so music is a big part of it, but all of the songs in it are are fictional songs, written by me, meaning they didn't exist at the time.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Irwin View Post
    If you wait 70 years, the copyright will expire. Otherwise, don't use somebody else's work. It's stealing.
    No it isn't, that's nonsense. By that logic, every academic paper ever 'steals' when it uses sources. In a story, it is perfectly acceptable and long-established to use song lyrics to capture a mood (the song playing in the background reflects the situation), zeitgeist (sixties music in a book set in the sixties), character trait (Betty loves The Beatles so quotes their songs a lot), etc. Same with movies, TV shows, newspapers, etc.

    You're a writer, so write your own lyrics, for crap sake. It's not that hard.
    It's not about it being hard, but about the lyrics being recognizable as part of popular culture -- therefore creating a sense of time and place, often nostalgic, which is often vital in a story.

    My novel is set in the '70s, so music is a big part of it, but all of the songs in it are are fictional songs, written by me, meaning they didn't exist at the time.
    I'm not sure how you can write original song lyrics that are recognizably indicative of the 1970's without making them extremely similar to the music that actually existed. Either way is fine, but both are 'stealing' by that logic.

    What I mean is, if you want to make your work seem 70's but are afraid of using actual 70's songs, so you write some fictional 70's-sounding song lyrics that sound similar enough to real 70's songs to create that effect, chances are you are thinking of at least one real song when you write them: So why not just write the actual song lyrics and save yourself an unnecessary step? You're not exactly being original either way.

  10. #10
    I'd just make up some lyrics instead or refer to the song title and/or artist rather than copying any of the lyrics, to avoid a possible hassle.

    https://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/questions-and-quandaries/legal-questions/can-i-use-song-lyrics-in-my-manuscript











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