Wednesday afternoon, 81°F and partly sunny
Listening to CSNY The Loner/Cinnamon Girl/Down by the River
Some thoughts on using copyrighted lyrics
[UPDATE: When I wrote this post on using copyrighted lyrics, I was doubtful that I’d be able to obtain the proper permissions. Happily, Pearl Jam and music publisher Hal Leonard came through, granting me permission to include these lyrics in my novel. Lesson: If you want something, it’s worth asking for.]
In the first chapter of my novel State of Love & Trust, the character Saint Wozniak peels up his Mother Love Bone tank shirt to reveal the entire first stanza of Whipping inked in a neat typewriter font on his shoulder blade. Those lyrics, which he says are his favorite, matter to the novel. Yet they are not included anywhere in the text, and for good reason.
Lyrics that are not in the public domain are protected by copyright law. Some writers play fast and loose, using copyrighted lyrics without permission then crossing their fingers hoping that the artist they were “borrowed” from won’t notice. That’s either planning for failure—believing their novels will stay so small that a copyright infringement won’t be noticed—or risking that the owner of those lyrics will come after them for back-royalties. I wasn’t willing to chance that, but even more so, I felt it was a matter of respect for Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder to not use any of their lyrics without their permission. But regardless of how one feels about a given artist, using copyrighted lyrics without permission is bad form, bad faith, and just straight up bad.
I’ve approached Pearl Jam’s management, and subsequently music publisher Hal Leonard, about obtaining a license to include the first stanza of Whipping in the book. It’s a process that takes time, and the licensing fees/royalties may ultimately be out of reach for a newly published author like me. So while I’d love to include those lyrics in the book at some point, the time the licensing process takes, coupled with the probability it will be too expensive for me to do, means that for now they will be left out.
To be very clear about this, I don’t feel Pearl Jam owes me anything. In fact, I’m deeply indebted to them for the boundless inspiration that made my novel come to life. It would be pretty bogus to “repay” them by swiping their intellectual property. But I also wasn’t especially concerned they’d come after me for it; I’ve seen other fans using copyright lyrics of theirs in published works with no consequences (at least, not that I know of). For me, though, it was a matter of respect for Pearl Jam and for copyright laws which ultimately exist to protect the creators of original works. That includes Pearl Jam, and even me.
I’m comfortable publishing State of Love & Trust without those lyrics. If Saint’s characterization relied solely on his Whipping tattoo, knowing what it said would be crucial to understanding him. Fortunately, Saint is so much more than his ink. He reveals himself through his dialogue, actions, and reactions throughout the story. He would be Saint with or without his tattoo even though it does fit him perfectly.
If you’re curious, you can view the lyrics to Whipping at Pearl Jam’s official website.