mgolvach's picture
mgolvach from Alexandria, Virginia July 19, 2015 - 1:59pm

Hey there,

I've read several other closely related threads, but I'm still curious about this one thing in particular.

I've already written a number of stories for which I don't have titles yet.  And, if were to find something in a song, that I thought would be a serviceable title, would that be in violation of the law?

As a "for instance," although I have no interest in naming any of my short stories this, if I were to listen to something like The Beatles' "And I love her" and they lyrics were:

"Bright are the stars that shine.  Dark is the sky.  I know this love of mine will never die"

And that put "Dark is the sky" in my head and it seemed to fit for something I've already written, should I be seeking permission to use "Dark Is The Sky" as a short story title?

Also, given the staggering odds that any particular phrase might be found somewhere in the ever increasing pool of song lyrics, do I need to worry about whether any particular title might possibly be including in an existing commercial song?

Thanks for any opinions!

, Mike

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore July 20, 2015 - 6:55am

This is an interesting dilemma, because, on one hand, we know that you must get permission to use even a single line of a copyrighted song lyric in fiction (because poetry is a short form, weighting the importance of each word), while on the other hand, titles are uncopyrightable.

In your particular example, I wouldn't worry about it, because it's pretty general, which is the very reason you can't copyright titles, and it would be easy to claim you'd never heard of it before. If it were from a super-distinct lyric, though, I wouldn't, like "The Funk of 40,000 Years" or "Scaramouche, Will You Do the Fandango?" It all comes back to something I'm sure has been said here before, which is that if you think someone else's words are the best title for your story, you're probably not thinking hard enough. Either pick something common enough that it could be coincidence, or make up your own.

I'm not a lawyer. Goo goo g'joob.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like July 20, 2015 - 12:26pm

Yeah, if you think it's actually perfect, and you can't think of something better, then you should ask permission or at least put in a credit & citation (so you can't be accused of actual plagiarism). It's a famous song by a famous band, and to use it as a title could be said to be piggybacking on its renown (increased recognition or web-search results), especially since you've admitted the phrase only came to you via the song. It wouldn't really be the most dastardly thing imaginable to go ahead and use it, but it would be dishonest to not give credit when you know where it's from (assuming what you've typed here is true). If you had just come up with the phrase and someone said, "Oh, like the Beatles' song," that really would be a different act.

mgolvach's picture
mgolvach from Alexandria, Virginia July 24, 2015 - 10:15am

Hey there,

Thanks for the responses.  What you've written makes sense, and was essentially what I assumed, but I really appreciate the answers.

For everything I do, I stay away from pop culture references in my titles, even song titles that I know of, since they're allowed.  As you've noted, it's lazy.  If I can write a 40 page short, and I can't be bothered to think of a few more original words to label it, it's time for a long nap ;)

Thanks, again, for your input.  It's an issue that's been nagging me for some time and I couldn't seem to find anything, anywhere (except here) that addressed anything but title copyright as opposed to lyrics.

, Mike

mgolvach's picture
mgolvach from Alexandria, Virginia July 25, 2015 - 4:16pm

Hey again, just an update for anyone who finds this information useful.

At the same I time asked this question, I also inquired with Metallica's legal representation about using a very specific lyric as the title of a story and this is part of their response (Why Metallica?  They came up the most when I looked up copyright lawsuits)

"Hello Michael,
You’re only looking to name the story “Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams” but you do not have any lyrics directly quoted in the text, is that correct?"

I responded that I had no intention of using the lyric or any other lyrics from that song (Master of Puppets) or any other Metallica song in the actual story, and asked if they needed attribution or to be paid any fees for use of the lyric, etc, and their response included:

"No, naming a story after a song lyric is fine. You're free to title the story that (just as Joe Hill was able to publish "Heart Shaped Box," the film "Feeling Minnesota" was made, and Godsmack was able to name themselves that)!"

So, while this may not represent the legal views of all artists out there, Metallica is fine with you using specific unique lyrics as story "titles," just so long as you don't quote lyrics, or use them verbatim within the text of the story.  They don't even require that you acknowledge that you're using the lyric as a title, but, if I were to write a story and call it that, I think I would attribute it to them, out of respect, since it wasn't an original thought that I had.

Hope that helps someone, somewhere, sometime :)

, Mike

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like July 27, 2015 - 6:55am

Interesting. That's a much more specific phrase than the other. (Though both "mind-twisting" and "dream-smashing" were around before Metallica, I think.) Why would they be okay with it as a title but not as something said by a character in the book's text?

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann July 31, 2015 - 6:54pm

You can use song names for titles. You can't really copyright a title. If you use lyrics, you should get permission first. It doesn't matter for a working title. Not until you're considering publishing it under that name.

You can also look and see if the song is still copyrighted: www.copyright.gov. If it's an older one, it might not be. Given that it's the Beatles, it definitely is. Just ask. Given that it's within the copyright holder's rights that they can deny you the right to quote the lyrics, ask for a fee, or only give you permission under specific terms, you should probably just ask. I'd think most of them wouldn't mind just flat out giving you permission given that it's not like any of us are making bank like somebody like Stephen King.

mgolvach's picture
mgolvach from Alexandria, Virginia August 13, 2015 - 9:53pm

Hey Jyh,

Agreed with the others, and bethween. It's always best to ask, I think, if the song isn't something like "Clementine" in the public domain.

I specifically requested permission from QPrime, that handles Metallica, and they said they were fine with me using part of a lyric as a title, but that it was "not" okay for anyone in the story to use that lyric verbatim, or to quote lyrics from any Metallica song without getting their permission and probably paying them a fee

I can understand them not wanting lyrics quoted, but I'm not sure why a character wouldn't be able to say something like that.  In the end, a lot of lyrics can be used as long as it's not too specific.  I try to stay away from it myself (although I've probably used lyrics unintentionally, as I am unaware of any song in which they're used) if I know that the lyric isn't mine and it's something distinct enough for me to realize that I got lazy every time I read it ;)