fair use

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Copyright? Copywrong.


There are a few important things you should know about me before reading the post below:

1. I work in the book industry and have for many, many years. As such, I am very interested in protecting the rights authors have in the intellectual property they create.

2. As evidenced by this website, I’m a soon-to-be published author. Egmont USA paid me an advance and is going to pay me a royalty on every copy of my book that you — whoever you are — buy. Each sale brings me one step closer to every author’s dream — freedom from the day job. (I have a great day job but c’mon, who doesn’t want freedom from the day job?)

3. I think people who create content for a living — words, music, images, moving images — deserve to be compensated for their work. I really, really do.

It’s against this backdrop that I’m here tell you, copyright sucks. Well, sort of.

In my book, The Scar Boys, I use a snippet of a song lyric to head each of the 40 chapters. And when I say snippet, I mean snippet. Two examples:

“Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening…”

“Gives me the shots, gives me the pills, got me takin’ this junk, against my will.”
—New York Dolls

[youtube width=”298″ height=”241″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wun5Cg-xr-s[/youtube]

In fact, The New York Dolls quote above, from the song “Pills,” is the longest of the 40 snippets. I figured such a small sample of text would be protected by the Fair Use doctrine of the copyright law. (In case you’re not familiar with Fair Use, see this article.)

Nuh uh.

My own research — along with the lawyers employed by my publisher — suggests that using even a few words of a song lyric or a poem could constitute infringement, and that “music publishers are fierce and protective and tend to charge a lot of money.”

So I made an attempt to clear permissions for each lyric fragment. It was a Herculean effort. I had to track down not just the artist, not just the writer, not just the music label, not just the publisher, but the secondary publisher that handles reprint licensing. When I finally got to the right entity, when I finally gathered all the information they needed to process my request, I waited. And then I waited some more.

This was in December, and I’m still waiting.

But that’s just the process. My issues go much, much deeper.

Isn’t it better for the writers of “Pills” to have public references to the song that in no way infringe on the potential sale of the music? I mean think about it. How many people today even remember this song? Suppose I get lucky and my book sells through its print run; that’s a whole lot of people (not counting pass through) that get exposed to the existence of a song that almost none of them know exists. And they want me to pay them? Shouldn’t this be the other way around? Shouldn’t I be able to collect some sort of marketing placement fee?

Copyright matters. Copyright is important. But this is ridiculous.

I’m so frustrated that I’ve given up waiting. I’m going to forgo the snippets and use song titles, which, it turns out, are not protected by copyright, for the chapter headings. It’s a suitable solution, and I’m happy with the book, just not as happy as I would have been with the actual lyrics. But that’s not really the point. The point is that we as a culture need to reexamine not only how we protect works, but how we promote them as well.

I would love to know what you think…