Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Who Said That?


Our question this week is about legal and copyright issues: “But I really want to use that quote.” Where do you go for legal / copyright advice? Do you ever use public or historical figures in stories? A song lyric? 

 In my third book, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, I had a famous country and western singer, Angel Bright, as a character.
You've probably never heard of her. Why? Because I made her up. I also wanted to use lyrics from a famous country and western song in the book but I didn’t want to deal with what I had heard were stringent legal issues regarding song lyrics. So I made up two songs for her: “I Just Called to Say Remember When,” and “Too Late to Come Home.” I even made up the tunes to go with them. I’ve always thought I should have the songs recorded, but never got around to it. But the point is, I could use the lyrics any way I wanted to, because I made them up myself. 

Here's a sample from "Too Late to Come Home": 
 "It’s Laura and Annie and Susie, 
Not to mention your old flame Jeanette. 
As far as I can tell you’re not planning to leave me, 
But you’re not done two-timing me yet." 

 And here's the chorus from "I Just Called to Say Remember When": 

 "Remember when you held me ever so tight? 
Remember when you and I lit up the night?
Remember when we were much more than just friends?
I just called to say remember when." 

 Maybe these lyrics won't stop the traffic, but for my purposes they worked fine. I’m sure some authors have important reasons to use real lyrics and real quotes, but I always think “made up” works better. Then, you don’t have to worry about using someone else’s creativity or being liable for money you didn’t intend to spend. 

 An author friend wanted to use words from a famous poem in the intro to his book. I understood why he wanted to use it. It melded perfectly with the sinister character he was using. He ended up paying several hundred dollars for the right to use the poem. He’s a good writer, and I wonder if he could just as well be served by writing a poem himself. 

 Here’s a question I have, though. Suppose you want to date your story by referring to a well-known band from the past like The Beatles. Would it be legal to refer to a song by them that they didn't really record? Something you have made up, and that you quote from? Like, “We were listening to The Beatles’ famous song ‘Arty Farty.’ I always loved the part where they sang, ‘If you want to sound smart, Pretend you know about art.’” 

 The Author’s Guild has a legal team that will give members advice about such matters. And I have friends who are entertainment lawyers who might even give me free advice, but whom I’d be willing to pay if particularly copyrighted material was important to me. 

Free "advice” about using song lyrics or copyrighted material is pretty easy to come by, but I wouldn’t use the advice from googling or from hearsay. Nor would I just go ahead and use it without worrying about whether what I was doing was legal. Because if you do run afoul of legal rights to material, it can be expensive. 

 There’s another realm in which you can get in trouble if you aren’t careful, and that’s use of photos. I use images from a photo app, for which I pay a subscription that seems expensive to me. But I always worry that if I use supposedly “free” photos, someone may pounce on my usage and demand payment. There are people who constantly troll websites and blogs for photographs that should have been paid for before usage. There are limits to usage demands, but the laws are obscure, and I don’t want to tussle with someone who has legitimate rights to their creative output. I am willing to pay to be sure I have the right to us it. And I actually prefer to use my own photographs when I can, because then I know I’m not infringing on anyone else’s creative output. For example, why would I use someone's else photo of an elephant, when I can use my own?

 Or as a more pertinent example, I knew I'd be wanting some photos of motorcycles when my book set at a motorcycle rally comes out next fall. So, I started taking random photos of motorcycles.
As for using historical or prominent figures, I do know that most usage of prominent figures is allowable, unless you are deliberately libeling them. So I would freely use the name of a governor or president or other prominent current or historical figures. But unless it was vital to the story, again I see no reason not to make it up. 

 So bottom line, when it comes to using lyrics or quotes or even photos, I mostly I make it up.


Susan C Shea said...

You have a second career! Your country & western lyrics sound like the real thing to me, and if they "eon't stop traffic," neither do the others I've heard. Admittedly, my exposure is light, except for the Dixie Chicks.Your advice is good all round.

Terry said...

Okay, gearing up my vocal chords even as I write this. Lalalala!

Frank Zafiro said...

Great advice, Terry. I had to do this same thing a lot when writing my two most recent mainstream novels (as Frank Scalise), A VILLAGE OF STRANGERS and A BAKER'S DIVORCE because both of them featured musicians as central characters. And while I am glad I didn't have to fake the music as well, I had fun with the lyrics part... sometimes actually trying and sometimes trying to be ridiculous. I mean, a fifty-year-old white guy doing hip-hop with his song "Dippy Dippy Do"?

But it is a great way to avoid copyright issues, for sure.