In a post a couple of weeks ago, “My Epigraph,” I touched on the subject of “fair use”:
“Fair use” is a contested area. If you plan to quote other writers in your work, read up on it. I believe there is, and should be, a huge middle ground between “anything goes” and “consult a lawyer,” Do learn the lay of the land, because the cost of putting a foot wrong can be high. Word on the street for a long time has been “don’t ever quote from popular song lyrics without getting permission.” This has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the fact that the big music publishers have been zealous about defending their turf. Your use of two lines from a popular song may be fair by any reasonable definition, but it takes very deep pockets to defend it in court. Might often does make right, and it makes us jumpy too.
Note especially the sentence in bold. Here’s something better than “word on the street”: a link to novelist-blogger David Hewson’s October 23 blog post, “Never quote a rock lyric in a book unless you’re rich.” It’s his grueling first-person discovery of how permissions work in the music biz.
Do read through to the end. Musician Bruce Hornsby did grant Hewson permission to use a line from his lyrics, and all he asked in return was a signed copy of the finished novel. I like to think there are more Bruce Hornsbys out there, though perhaps they’re more often found in the less glamorous corners of the music world.
The real moral of the story is this: Assume nothing. Do your homework — especially when you’re dealing with lyrics.