Thursday, January 15, 2009

Birthdays and Copyrights

“Birthdays are nature's way of telling us to eat more cake.” –Unknown

When editing The Ride, I was asked to delete lyrics from a scene I had written although I had only used one line of a Beatle’s song and had even given credit to the group. My editor informed me that using lyrics requires obtaining written permission and can be quite expensive. Copyright protection, I learned, is for the life of the composer plus 70 years.

I am allowed, however, to use song titles. This made no sense to me but I complied because I’d rather not take the chance of being sued. To me the scene was much better when my characters were singing the words aloud together at the top of their lungs. But, hopefully the reader can still ‘hear’ what I wanted to get across.

With this in mind, I thought it interesting to read in the Encyclopedia of Useless Information by William Hartston that “Happy Birthday to You” was composed by Mildred and Patty Hill in 1936. This means that the song should not be sung in public without paying royalties.

How many times might servers burst into this tune during one night in a busy family restaurant? Think of the income these ladies are missing out on! Either Mildred and Patti are quite generous with the use of their song, not into lawsuits, or they’re not familiar with this copyright law.

I don’t want to break any laws. Therefore, before my family has a chance to sing a lively rendition of this traditional song to me today, I must warn them to use only the title and skip the lyrics if we’re in a public place. After that, well…I plan to eat more cake.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: The Ride, copyright, Hartson, Encyclopedia of Useless Information, happy birthday,


Joan De La Haye said...

Happy Birthday and enjoy the cake. I had a similar problem with 'Shadows.' I had one of my characters singing Queen's "I'm going slightly mad.' I wanted the character to sing a particularly apt part of the song, but unfortunately had to change it and could only mention that he sung that song. Very sad!

Joan De La Haye

Anonymous said...

Hmm. You'd think singing "Happy Birthday" at a free event for non-commercial purposes would constitute as "fair use." The reality is kind of silly, isn't it? I attended a workshop on Intellectual Property and Copyrights over the weekend so this stuff is still pretty fresh in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Yes I ran into that when preparing my first book for publication. I had a quote from a song in it and my editor said I had to take it out, or paraphrase it, or get written permission to print it. I went with the paraphrasing and made reference to the song. That worked for everybody.

Morgan Mandel said...

It's good to know I can use song titles, since I have one in my work in progress.

Krista said...

I ran into this problem/advice as well, but I ended up just singing the song in my head and writing different lyrics entirely, which triggered an idea that solved a problem a few chapters before, and the whole section turned out much tighter. Blessings in disguise.

Beth Groundwater said...

Many other authors I know have run into this problem with using song lyrics, even if they just wanted to put a short snippet in their book. Most opt to not go to the trouble of negotiating a settlement with the composer.

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world