Though I’ve been focusing on fiction since 2008, I actually studied poetry in college. I love it: the mystery, the close-packed imagery, the way every word has so much weight. It was only natural that I’d include poetry in any novel I’d write.
This can create problems though.
When an author uses song lyrics or lines of poetry in her novel, she has to get permission from the original publisher to use it.
I ended up narrowing what I used down to one set of lyrics, two full poems, and three other lines of poetry. One poem was in the public domain. This includes most works first registered or published in the United States before 1923, and that means the copyright has expired, so you can use these things without seeking special permission.
For the song lyrics, I had to track down the band’s music publisher. Then I sent an email to them and was informed that, though the music was by the band, the lyrics were written by just one member, so they pointed me to another publisher. I investigated that publisher’s website, and they said their permissions were done through a different publisher, so I contacted them. Then they instructed me to seek through yet another publisher. I think I’ve landed in the right place. They just asked me for additional details about Truest. No word yet on whether they’ll say yes or no.
For one of the lines of poetry, I filled out an online form for the publisher (which, by the way– it’s not always as easy as you might think to figure out the original publisher, especially if that poet is e.e. cummings, who has poetry collections galore), and they said, “Yes. No charge.” Phew.
For the other two lines of poetry, I had to snail mail (no email accepted) a request. It was granted with stipulations– I had to pay $190 for the use for my first 10,000 copies of Truest, after which, I’d need to query again (and probably pay again too).
For the other full poem, I have heard nothing as of the writing of this blog post. It’s fair to say I’m on pins and needles over this one because the poem is pretty important to the story, and I’ll have to re-write parts of my book if I don’t get the permission here.
What’s the take-away from this?
Use things in the public domain– or write your own and attribute it to a fake poet or lyricist.
Of course there will be times when an existing line works so perfectly that you simply must use it– or else maybe it’s a famous line and the fame is part of the reason you need it. There are always exceptions. But I’m being a lot choosier about what I put in my next novel.