Last week, there was a question in #askagent about mentioning a song’s title in their novel, and so I thought it’d be good to expand on it just a bit further.
Using the name of a song (e.g. “The band played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” every hour on the hour.”) is fine. But using just one line from the lyrics can be prohibitively expensive, and a publisher is not going to be interested in paying that fee. (It’s possible even your whole advance wouldn’t cover it, depending on the amount of your advance and the popularity of the song you want to use.)
You might be thinking, “But what about ‘fair use’? I’m only using one line and my characters are discussing the song’s merit!”
But this kind of usage wouldn’t be covered under fair use for a number of reasons (see four factors that the Copyright Act uses to consider whether something is fair use or not). A novel is, of course, a commercial enterprise, and having two characters discuss the song within a novel would not be considered comment or criticism. And one of the major differences between using one line of a novel versus one line of a song, is that one line of a song is considered a significant portion of the work – even if that line itself is only three or four words.
So if you’re writing a novel where the character is inspired by a song, your best bet is to write original lyrics to weave into your novel. Anything else is going to be too expensive to produce.
(P.S. – If you ever wondered why every chain restaurant you went to sang their own version of the “Happy Birthday” song, it’s because the copyright claim to Happy Birthday to You was only recently declared invalid in the US and became public domain in the UK at the beginning of last year.)