If you ever decide to publish something, and you chose to quote someone else’s work, you need to obtain permission to reprint their words in your work. It doesn’t matter if it is one word or an entire paragraph or a whole song or just a single line, you have to get permission to use any copyrighted material you don’t own the rights to. Fair Use rules are just too nebulous to rely on without an attorney advising you, so asking permission is just the right thing to do. The originator of that work probably worked really hard to come up with it, and that hard work should be respected. You could always include the content without getting permission and hope you don’t get caught, but why do that? Presumably you respect the person whose work you are quoting and want to give them appropriate credit. Not to mention the legal and financial consequences can be severe if you do get caught and they want to contest your usage.

Generally speaking, I think copyright protection is a good idea. The laws might have run amok since their initiation and could stand some reformation, but maybe I’ll save that for another post. While I doubt the protection granted by copyright laws are a strong motivating factor in whether someone creates something to share with the public, it certainly is an encouragement knowing no one else can claim your work as their own. The idea of having to get permission from the originator of any material you wish to quote just makes sense. They may want monetary compensation, a mere mention of their name, or even the chance to say they don’t want their work associated with yours. I think creators deserve that.

So, why am I talking about copyright anyway? Mostly to offer some assistance to any other writers who are trying to figure all this stuff out. By telling my story of trying to get permission to quote some lyrics, maybe I can help someone else decide whether they even want to try.

In my book, The Girl in the Gallery, there are two scenes where my characters, Henry and Kate, are listening to music by Nine Inch Nails. I wanted them to talk about the lyrics they were hearing, because the songs were driving their conversation and revelations about each other. If you have read my book (you have, right?) and are familiar with the songs Kate and Henry were listening to, you might notice that there are no actual lyrics quoted in those conversations or anywhere else for that matter. So why not?

First, I had to determine if I even needed permission. I was under the false delusion that as long as you gave credit to the original author, that that was sufficient. Like in all those high school and college papers you wrote, when you quoted something, you included a proper citation to the source material. Well, that’s all well and good for school papers, possibly even academic work that shows up in journals. But if you are publishing something for money, well, that’s a different story. I discovered this when I was looking at the copyright page (don’t laugh – I’m a proud, self-proclaimed nerd) of a book that contained several quotes from poems and prose at the start of each chapter. There were several entries noting all the permissions they got from each source to include those quotes. That got me wondering if I had to do that too. A few web searches later and I discovered that if you are going to include someone else’s work in your own, and you intend to profit off of it, you need to ask permission. Since I was planning on selling my book, I had to get permission.

So I went in search of how to get permission. It turns out, getting permission is a huge pain in the ass. If you ever decide to write a book, I’d strongly urge you to skip the quotes from other people or be prepared with alternative prose for those parts if you can’t get or afford to pay for permission. If you decide to go for it, then here’s what you need to do.

Step One: Find out who the copyright holder is. Where you go to do that is dependent on the source material, and for this blog, I’ll primarily talk about music, but whether it is a book, poetry, or music, odds are you’re going to have to track down the publisher. For books, look on the copyright page where there is usually an address for inquiries. Music has publishers too, but they are far more difficult to track down. It’s not quite as simple as looking at the copyright page. You need to figure out who the songwriters are for the songs you are interested in and then figure out which performing rights society they belong to. This information may or may not be in the liner notes of your album/cassette/CD. Once you’ve figured out who the songwriter is, you can search each of the societies’ websites to figure out which one represents your artist or artists in question. Here are the links to the three societies that songwriters must belong to ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. Each songwriter can only belong to one, but there may be multiple songwriters and they don’t have to belong to the same society, so make sure you check for each one.

Step Two: Once you have determined which society or societies are involved, you can search the Society’s website for the specific publishing information for whichever song or songs you want to quote from. There will be some kind of contact information listed there for you to start with. You will need to contact ALL of the publishers listed to request permission.

Step Three: Write a letter or email or fill out their on-line forms to make your request. If they don’t have an on-line form, include the following information in your letter or email. This list is a combination of what was recommended here and what was requested specifically by one of the publishers who responded to my request. Some information may have to be a best guess on your part. This information may also be unavailable as it is geared more toward traditional publishing than e-book/independent publishing, which, I think, everyone is still trying to figure out.

  1. An introduction of who you are, the title of your work, with whom you intend to publish (which traditional or indie publisher), and where (what countries) you intend to publish;
  2. Synopsis of the work;
  3. Excerpts containing the quoted material with enough context for the original artist(s) to make a determination that they want their material quoted in such a fashion;
  4. The term for which you are seeking to publish the works; (I imagine if you have a publishing contract, this is defined. If you are self-publishing, well, you can make your book available forever technically.)
  5. Estimated number of copies of work to be published; (There is no good way to answer this question if you are self-publishing an e-book only or if you are publishing a paperback via a print-on-demand service. If you have an audience already, say there are 1000 subscribers to your blog, you can use that as a guesstimate. If you don’t have a ready-made audience, keep it conservative. While it’s possible your book could go viral, unknown authors who are not marketing experts may only see a few hundred sales, if that.)
  6. The retail sales price of the work; (I have no idea if this is a common request or why it is even anyone’s business, but there you go.)
  7. The languages in which the work will be published;
  8. The names of any other compositions and artists whose lyrics are being reprinted and any fees that are being paid in connection with such use; (Again, not sure why this is relevant, or if it is a common request.)
  9. The proposed fee. (This one really surprised me. I expected that if any money was going to be exchanged, they would tell me what they wanted, not the other way around, so have a number in mind. And no, I have no idea if there is a standard amount or what it is.)

Step Four: Don’t hold your breath. Re-write the passages where you are quoting someone else’s material. This isn’t to discourage you. Perhaps you will have more luck than I did. If you have the time, patience, and tenacity to be a pest, then give it a shot. It never hurts to ask, but don’t be surprised if you never hear back from anyone on your request.

As you might have guessed, I did not get permission to use NIN’s lyrics, and, therefore, removed them and rewrote those passages. There were two publishers for the songs I was quoting from. I never heard back from one of them, which I kind of expected, because it seemed like a big corporation. I assumed my request would languish in corporate bureaucracy, never to see the light of day. The other publisher did request further information. I provided that information to the best of my ability, indicating that I was guessing on some of it, and that I’d be happy to get creative with any agreement we could come up with that would satisfy everyone. Unfortunately, after giving the requested information and sending a few follow-up emails to keep my request on the publisher’s radar, I never heard another word from him. It was frustrating and discouraging, and in my humble opinion, unprofessional on his part not to provide a specific answer, but what are you going to do? I was proud of myself for even asking.

As a side note, if you are the holder of a copyright and you or your representatives get a request to quote some of your material, have the common decency to at least give them an answer, even if it is a simple “no.” It shows you respect your copyright as much as they do. It also shows you appreciate that respect.