In My Pearl Jam Universe
Thursday night, 70°F
Listening to The Rolling Stones, Let It Loose
Or how I got copyright permission on lyrics from Pearl Jam
How many times have you been told that you can’t put lyrics in your novel? That it’s impossible (or at least prohibitively expensive) to obtain copyright permission on lyrics? If it’s important to your novel, then it’s worth the effort to try. I did, and it wasn’t nearly as difficult as people claim. I’m so glad I didn’t let their negativity discourage me.
First things first: you absolutely must get copyright permission on lyrics before you publish them in your manuscript. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the law.
On August 17, 2016, I made a post explaining why the words of Saint Wozniak’s Whipping tattoo were left out of my novel, State of Love & Trust. In short, his tattoo is the first stanza of the Pearl Jam song, Whipping, and therefore protected by copyright. At the time I wrote that post, I was well into the process of attempting to obtain permission from music publisher Hal Leonard. Based on everything I’d read while researching copyright issues, I fully expected it to be too expensive. But I had to at least ask. Those lyrics fit Saint’s reckless, hard headed character too perfectly for me to not at least try to get them included.
Late this morning, Hal Leonard notified me that they’d grant me the rights for a very reasonable—in fact, surprisingly small—fee. I was tickled. Hours later I am still tickled. In a few days, all copies of State of Love & Trust going forward will include the first stanza of Whipping in the spot on page 4 where it was always meant to be.
I’ve been absolutely over the moon about this all day. I didn’t even get upset when I accidentally dumped garbage water all over my work clothes while hosing the wasps out of the trash can. (It’s a long story.) I just laughed at myself and changed my clothes.
The thing is, I’d read so many tales about how hard-to-impossible it is to include someone else’s lyrics in a novel. How it will run thousands of dollars and never be worth it. How it’s only an option if you’re a Stephen King or a Brett Easton Ellis. How new writers should not even bother. I now have this to say: it depends on which lyrics. It depends on the artist. It depends on the publisher. It depends on the context. If you’re a writer who really wants to include certain lyrics in a published work, at least ask the copyright holder. I’m glad I did.
Asking for copyright permission on lyrics – My experience
Getting permission wasn’t simple or particularly quick. There was some emailing back and forth with the publisher. I had to send a synopsis of the book. The fussiest part was fulfilling Hal Leonard’s request for PDFs of every page that mentioned Pearl Jam. With a Pearl Jam themed novel about Pearl Jam fans, that was quite a project. I decided to stick with pages that included the words Pearl Jam but skip any that mentioned only a band member, album, concert or song. It was still a lot of pages. I made a PDF of the manuscript, then broke it out into individual pages, one PDF file for each or 300+ PDFs. I then opened the original manuscript in my word processing program and did a search for the words “Pearl Jam.” For each page it appeared on, I moved the corresponding PDF file into a new folder. When I was finished, I zipped the folder and emailed it to my contact at Hal Leonard.
After a few days, Hal Leonard gave me an incredibly sweet price (I’ve spent more on taking my family of four out to dinner) and a limit on the number of books I could publish before I would owe them more (a limit I’d be thrilled to reach even half of, truth be told).
All this was entirely worth the effort. I couldn’t be happier with the end result.
Is IS possible
Because I love, write and read pop culture or rock n roll fiction, I’ve seen lyrics in many novels. In my genre (if you can call this a genre … I’m still looking for a rock fiction shelf at my local bookstore) it’s downright common. So where does this idea come from that it’s impossible to get copyright permission on lyrics? Sure, it takes some effort, but writing a novel is always going to take all kinds of effort. What’s a little bit more?
In addition to Pearl Jam and the kindly Hal Leonard licensing administrator who saw this process through, I need to thank my writing friend Kevin Craig for giving me the courage to pursue copyright permission on lyrics. He once shared that he’d obtained permission to use Leonard Cohen’s lyrics in his lovely work of YA fiction, Sebastian’s Poet, simply by asking. Kevin’s experience was the glimmer of hope that kept me going despite all of the naysaying about using lyrics in novels. He was also granted permission to quote Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics. I hope that by sharing my great experience with trying for this, I’ll pay it forward for another writer.
So, as if that wasn’t enough Pearl Jam joy for one day … When I arrived home for lunch, what was waiting for me on the front porch but the No Code and Yield albums I’d preordered through Ten Club. You better bet I unwrapped those rascals right away and put them on the turntable.
Cover image by author: No Code & Yield on my favorite couch.