There are few things more powerful than the use of other artistic works to supplement our creative writing. When used sparingly and with careful consideration, things like song lyrics, art images, and pop culture references can help bring your story alive and imbue it with a more profound sense of humanity. However, the biggest obstacle to using others’ creative works is that dreaded word: copyright. I’ll be exploring the basic tenets of the U.S. Fair Use legal doctrine, as well as ways in which you can become more mindful ofthe ways to avoid improperly using the works of others.
Artistic Supplements and their Merit
Stephen King opens virtually all of his books with quotes and/or song lyrics (see, for example, The Stand). Heck, even frontman Morrissey of The Smiths has written several songs which pay homage to classic works of literature, such as Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie and A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf. The interwoven relationship between written prose and songs has a long and rich history. I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a sucker for sticking snippets of song lyrics into nearly all of my works. My reasoning? To more clearly articulate my story’s tone and thematic elements.
Aside from songs, I believe that art and cultural references also have their place in creative writing. Just pick up any notable book and skim through its pages, and chances are you’ll stumble across at least one line featuring colloquial language (“Sup, brah”) or an homage to a famous work of art (see The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown). My caveat is that you’ll generally have a harder time justifying these types of references, as they are more difficult to directly correlate with your theme and tone. However, it’s not impossible. My biggest piece of advice for this post is the following: Beware of using cultural artifacts, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, purely as a staging ground for your action. Set pieces, like anything else, can quickly become clichéd eye candy. Yes, I’m looking at you, 007.
Lastly, I would say that specific pop culture references should be used very sparingly, if at all. Having a character throw out a line about Brittany Spear’s latest pop song will become dated long before your book ever hits the shelves. Even so, if said reference directly develops your character or serves as an appropriate reflection of the time and setting of your story, then it will most likely ring true and be justified.
In short, I believe that it’s okay to insert a pop culture reference or two into your writing for the following reasons:
- When it aids in fleshing out your character(s) and/or their interrelationships
- As a signpost for the reader to help them determine the time period and/or setting of your work
Trademark, Fair Use, and How to Not Get Sued
Of course, inserting song lyrics or titles of famous paintings into your writing doesn’t come without its set of legal hurdles. The most important thing to remember is that you are directly copying another person’s work and redistributing it as part of your own. Therefore, you would be wise to first get acquainted with all the major U.S. indexes, laws, and doctrines which govern Fair Use and copyright protection.
In an article published by Copyright.gov, Issue No. 580 (2015), the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, Danny Marti, was quoted as saying that the “doctrine of fair use is a vital aspect of U.S. copyright law…[which] encourages creativity, promotes innovation, and respects our freedom of speech and expression.” In this article, you can also find a link to the U.S. Copyright Fair Use Index, which outlines several key court rulings and thus helps the average writer better understand the precedents surrounding Fair Use. You can peruse said index here.
In my research, I also discovered that the music industry monitors the use of song lyrics like a hawk. According to a post by QQAdmin1 over at writersdigest.com (“Can I Use Song Lyrics in my Manuscript?”), even using parts of a song in your writing requires explicit written permission from the rights owner, typically the music publisher. I believe that it’s okay to use lyrics in early drafts of your unpublished work; however, once you pursue publication, be sure to let your agent and publisher know that your writing has lyrics in it. They should be able to get you the necessary forms and help walk you through the process. Or they might ask you to cut the lyrics out entirely for the sake of saving time, money, and numerous headaches.
You can freely include the following in your writing without fear of repercussions:
- Lyrics that are in the public domain
- Song titles
- Book titles
For more information, be sure to check out a couple of excellent blog posts on using song lyrics and Fair Use. Michael Murphy wrote a helpful article called “So You Want to Use Song Lyrics in Your Novel? 5 Steps to Getting Rights to Lyrics.” In it, he outlines the process for pursuing the rights to song lyrics. His post can be found in this link. There is also another article by Helen Sedwick which goes into greater detail about how to write a professional request to reuse song lyrics.
Thank you for reading my latest “Lessons to Practice!” For my Thursday post, I’ll give a personal example of how I’ve used song lyrics in order to deepen my stories.
Do you like incorporating song lyrics, pop culture references, or other art pieces into your writing? What are your intentions by doing so?