Friday, 19 November 2010

Making a Song and Dance About Copyright

in the wake of a fiasco about purloined recipes that has already sparked enough bile not to be rehashed here, the lovely Jane at How Publishing Really Works has designated today copyright day. A whole host of bloggers will be blogging about copyright so check her blog for links - if you ever need to write on the subject there's bound to be something relevant to nick. That's satire, by the way. Which I believe is one of the legitimate uses for purloinage of portions. I heartily recommend Nicola Morgan's particularly clear and detailed contribution.

I will leave the law to others, and my take on copyright is very simple. Don't pilfer unless the author tells you it's OK. If an author does tell you it's OK, don't take that as an indication that you can extrapolate anything beyond that one instance. At all.

So to avoid this being a silly short post, I will tell you about a fantastic anthology I'm taking part in, put together by Michale Wells, author of the hilarious I Shot Bigfoot and Other Stories.

As "one of those" authors, the kind who hang out on the web rather than behaving decorously and getting a publisher or slinking off to their garret in a fit of pique or melancholy, I get asked to take part in a lot of fun anthologies. Sometimes they involve writing humour, something I find so traumatic I have to decline. Two recent ones I said yes to that have had a moderate amount of attention (largely because they were timed to come out at the same time as the bad sex awards) were about writing sex.

But the one in question, to be released in December, is a collection of stories inspired by songs. Not songs we got to choose ourselves (how many teenage memoirs of Love Will Tear Us Apart can society cope with after all?) . Michael randomly generated some titles from somewhere. I'm not sure where , and given the amount of INXS on there I'm in no hurry to ask. One of the INXS titles, Beautiful Girl, fell to me. I wrote a very peculiar story that none of the contributors could make head or tail of about a guy falling to pieces having killed a kid in a car crash (I say that because most people didn't even figure that out - that was the point. I wrote it like one of those black and white, oddly cut, moody enigmatic 80s pop videos).

What's relevant (and like a bad jokester - told you I couldn't do humour - I know you're there ahead of me) is that we spent a long long time discussing fair use before concluding that we wouldn't quote a single lyric. In the whole thing. Which has about 40 pieces of short and flash fiction in it.

Song lyrics seem to be THE most controversial copyright topic, largely because of the ambiguity over fair use. I can see why there's ambiguity. After all, on one hand you get Patti Smith who writes half the ancient mariner and sets it to music. On the other hand, you get the likes of 2 Unlimited, where if you didn't capitalise "No Limits" to make it clear you were referring to the title, you'd be lifting pretty much the whole song. But with songs being so much a part of popular culture, and so many of us writing about popular culture, it would be great to have SOME kind of rule for those of us who want to do the right thing by fellow artists, yet not have to avoid writing about whole swathes of subject matter or fill the page with allusion - yes, allusion, metaphor, word play are great, but sometimes you just want to quote a lyric and not risk being slapped with a suit you can't pay.

Maybe if we were allowed to quote a set proportion if we could prove due diligence? Let's face it, most managers are just too busy to get back to everyone who wants to quote a line from their band. BUT it's a bit rich if they then take out a suit against someone who tried to get permission but was never answered. So my suggestion - if I can show I asked your permission and you didn't get back to me, don't beef if I quote half a verse or a chorus couplet. And in return, if I can't be bothered to ask I won't quote.


  1. Thanks, Dan, for talking about copyright today. Lyrics and poetry are difficult to quote because the limits of "fair use" are not defined. Like you, I wish this were simpler. It would help people on both sides of the fence.

  2. Yes. The frustrating thing is that most people I know will err on the side of never quoting a thing, whilst watching the people who do getting all the publicity and attention for YouTubes and blogs that "use" material gratuitously. I love writing things that are close to the edge and being part of the underground, but as a penniless writer I both believe in not exploiting those who don't wish to be exploited, and can't afford a plagiarism suit.

    One thing that I totally see the point of but found hugely ironic, was when, having been to see the B*nksy exhibition in Bristol, I posted a pic on my blog of B*nksy's own lifted work, featuring a quotation about art being theft - only to have an anonymous comment left referring me to pest control. I removed the pic straightaway so as not to risk a lawsuit, but to say I find it rum that B*nksy (asterisk simply to avoid setting off google alerts) should enforce copyright when he is, essentially, a pilferer would be putting it mildly (and is exacly what I mean in the first para) - here is the link to my post

  3. Good post, Dan. If it's any help, Blake Morrison did a very interesting article on the cost of using song lyrics in The Guardian.

    It's an expensive business, so best avoided.

  4. Thank you for the link. You're right - those are some scary figures! It does make it very hard to write certain scenes when you can't quote, especially if you right a certain kind of book, with lots of pop culture refernces. On the other hand, learning how to say it without saying it can be a very useful exercise in developing as a writer.

    An interesting aside - large chunks of my shorts and novels take place at gigs. Who's playing often doesn't matter (though sometimes does). Since I've started doing both music reviewing and running literary nights with a musical component, i've got to know some great bands right at the start of their careers, who are happy to give me written permission to mentin their names and a few lines of lyrics in perpetuity.