How (and Why) to Use Free Culture Lyrics In Your Book

"I've got the 'white boy tryin' to use song lyrics in my novel blues.'" Image by zooverano, CC0
“I’ve got the ‘white boy tryin’ to use song lyrics in my novel’ blues.”
Image by zooverano, CC0
A year and a half ago, I did a post titled “A different way to legally quote lyrics in your books“, providing a legal, workable alternative to bringing in song lyrics to your novel without putting yourself at the mercy of the litigation-happy recording industry.

It has come to be the post I refer to most often on social media, somewhat to my surprise, and the more I link it, the less happy I am with how non-comprehensive it is.

So today I return to the well, and aim to do a better job of explaining what the Creative Commons is, what Free Culture licenses are, and how to go about finding songs whose lyrics you can use in your books with minimal fuss and no legal vulnerability on your part.

But before we go exploring the Commons and Free Culture, let’s deal with what all new writers are actually trying to do.

Do Not Use Mainstream, Major Label Songs In Your Writing

you may cast me off
but i remain
you may tell your tale
but i’m the same

— Bert Jarred, “Spectacular“, CC BY 3.0

You’ve been working on your novel for a long time, and it’s the greatest book ever written, and the only thing that could make it more perfect is if you could just use this one perfect song lyric as an epigraph.

Don’t.

I don’t care how perfectly “Stairway to Heaven” or “Under The Milky Way” are suited to your story. If you quote them, there will be legal consequences.

You can — probably — get away with referring to the name of the song, and the band name, in the story. But I wouldn’t even go that far, personally.

There is a theoretical limitation to copyright known as “fair use” in the United States. In theory, people have the right to use a portion of a copyrighted work in a larger, original creation.

In reality, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) (or your local equivalent if you’re outside of the US) is going to bring suit against any use for which they did not get paid and to which they did not give permission.

It doesn’t matter how cool the band or artist is with fans making use of their works (and some are, but they don’t get the final say). The major labels and the RIAA sue, basically, everybody. Unless you’re Stephen King or Dan Brown, you don’t have the resources for the knock-down, drag-out legal fight that would ensue. As far as they are concerned, there is no fair use until it has been litigated, and the purpose of that is to create a very expensive barrier to entry for any use.

Don’t believe me? In 2007, Stephanie Lenz posted to Youtube a 29 second video of her toddler dancing. Her child was dancing to Prince’s 1980s classic “Let’s Go Crazy”, which can be heard (poorly) in the background of the video. Universal Music Publishing Group had Youtube pull the video due to a claimed copyright violation. (“‘Universal’s takedown notice doesn’t even pass the laugh test,’ said EFF Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry.“) The lawsuits and countersuits started that same year.

It is now 2015, eight years later, and the suits still have not been decided.

That’s over a 29 second dancing baby video, from which the song in question could not possibly be pirated, or detract from the copyright in any way.

Do you really think using lyrics in your novel will get you less of a legal quagmire than a dancing baby video?

So, you can (again, probably) use a song title and connect it with the band or artist’s name in your story, but do not go further than that, or you’re all but certainly going to regret it.

What is the Creative Commons?

did you think that you could save me from myself?
i’d rather stare at these four walls i know so well
i know their stories, i know their hells
i’ve been there too and i think they need my help

— madalyniris, “Leave And Never Look Back“, CC BY 3.0

The Creative Commons is a non-profit organization founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig and others, with the goal of promoting general licenses so that artists and creators can choose to waive certain rights otherwise protected by copyright.

A work released under the Creative Commons does not include the phrase “all rights reserved”, but instead says “some rights reserved”, with the particular license making clear which rights those are.

The goal of these licenses is to encourage people to share creations that they like with others. Some licenses restrict you only to that, while others grant more and wider permissions. And culture consumers can do so without fear of being punished for, say, making a mixtape-playlist and giving it to a friend.

What are Free Cultural Works?

A thousand footsteps outside my door
Well they don’t seem to matter anymore
I’ve seen the signs along the wall
Mine is the greatest sign of them all

— Glenn Wilson, “Try“, CC BY-SA 3.0

You can read more about them at the Creative Commons site, but here’s a quick thumbnail.

There are four necessary characteristics for a work to be part of Free Culture:

  1. Freedom to use the work itself.
  2. Freedom to use the information in the work for any purpose.
  3. Freedom to share copies of the work for any purpose.
  4. Freedom to make and share remixes and other derivatives for any purpose.

The important point here is that any Free Culture license allows commercial use of a work, and derivative works.

If you write a book and it has somebody else’s lyrics in it, you have created a derivative work. If you then sell that book, you are making a commercial use of that derivative work.

With a Free Culture license, you already have permission to do both of these things, without penalty or even notifying the creator, so long as you abide the terms of the license.

The Creative Commons licensing structure has two licenses that fall under Free Culture.

The Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license is just that — you can do pretty much anything you want with the licensed work, so long as you give proper attribution (generally with a link to the original source), indicate whether changes have been made, and make clear that your use is not condoned or supported by the original creator.

The Creative Commons Attribution–Share-Alike (CC BY-SA) license requires the same things as the Attribution license, as well as requiring you to release your derivative work under an identical or compatible license.

Note that this does not mean you need to give your work away for free. It does mean, however, that you need to stop worrying about “piracy”, because you are giving permission to copy and share by using the license.

(And, really: relax. It’s not piracy, it’s free advertising. How many of your favorite authors did you discover by buying a book blindly? If someone reads your book, loves it, and makes a copy to encourage his friend to read it, that friend might become your new biggest fan. If he does, you’ll get plenty of purchases from him in the future, so why would you think about punishing him for that first read?)

At the moment, apart from earlier iterations of the same license, there is one non-Creative Commons license that is compatible with CC BY-SA — the Free Art License (FAL), also known as the License Art Libre (LAL).

If you read that license closely, you will find that it is, in every essential, the same as CC BY-SA. So if you find a song under an FAL license, you can put your book out with a CC BY-SA, and you’re covered.

(There is also the Creative Commons license to dedicate works to the public domain, the CC0 license, but to date, very few songs have been released under it.)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but how do I find a Free Culture song to quote?

It’s cause I like to fight about it so I,
Bite down taste blood then spit it out.
I learn quick, I make connections,
I don’t dream just pay attention.

— Lily Wolf, “Play The Game“, CC BY-SA 3.0

There are places to look, and ways to search, that can help you zero in on something appropriate. But you’ll be ahead of the game if you commit to listening to a lot of CC-licensed music to begin with.

It’s not difficult, and for the most part costs you only time and hard drive space. The only thing is you have to be willing to wade into unexplored waters and judge for yourself what’s good and what’s not. For some people that might be difficult, or at least it might take you a while to get your bearings.

But it’s worth it. Making CC-licensed music a regular part of your listening means when you think “man, this tune would be perfect for this video I shot”, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to use that tune with a clear conscience and no worries about RIAA lawsuits or DMCA takedown notices.

If you’re looking for a lyric Right Now, the first thing you want to do is go on a general CC search. Creative Commons has a CC Search tool (which is apparently being replaced, but hasn’t been yet).

jamendo_logoTo start listening to CC music generally, the place to start is Jamendo. It is, I believe, the oldest CC-music site, and has thousands and thousands of works, all under one CC license or another. Jamendo has some drawbacks. Older works disappear with disturbing frequency, and even finding a pointer to where they once were is difficult. So, for instance, I have a number of albums I downloaded from Jamendo and, due to moves from one computer to another, and other exigencies, the licensing info got lost, and I can no longer look up what license they had because they’re not even listed on Jamendo anymore. Jamendo also used to have a thriving community and lots of artist-fan interaction, which is now gone. And those “improvements” suggest that the owners of the site are perfectly willing to cripple it further without notice or regard for what you or I think. That said, it really is the best place to dive in to CC music.

WFMU-free-music-archive-logoAnother long-time CC music archive is the Free Music Archive, which hosts lots of CC-licensed music (lots of overlap with Jamendo), along with other music that’s free to download but not so clearly licensed (and some public domain music as well).

bandcamp_130x27_whiteBandCamp is a wonderful music outlet, and many artists on it use CC licenses, but there are two drawbacks — you cannot search by license, and when you download, at least the last time I did, licensing data is not included, not even in the music files’ metadata.

ia_purpleThe Internet Archive also houses a lot of CC audio, but it’s difficult to search by license, to find the sort of CC music you’re looking for, and to be sure that it’s legitimately under that license. I recommend going here only after you’ve got a lot of experience with searching out bands and songs, and having a good feel for what’s likely legitimate, and what’s probably somebody stealing music and passing it off as his own. (It’s pathetic, but yes, people actually do this.)

93px-SoundCloud_logo.svgThere are a number of Creative Commons artists on SoundCloud, but I’ve found searching there to be substandard, even while the formats available tend to be superior.

magnatune3-logo-smallMagnaTune is a pay service, so you know that artists are getting some financial support, and often they use CC licenses.

cc-mixter-logo-blackCCMixter is a service I’ve almost never used, but it definitely makes music available under CC licenses, so it’s worth checking out.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

No one likes the freak, no one likes the odd man out.
I’d rather live my life alone,
Than live a life of doubt.
I won’t let you force yourself on me,
I refuse to be a victim to your society.

— Sunspot, “Intellectual Terrorists” (CC BY-SA 3.0)

If you’re a writer, especially an indie writer, you don’t want to quote lyrics from mainstream songs in your book, or you invite lengthy litigation courtesy of the recording industry and their flesh-eating lawyers.

If you absolutely must include lyrics in your book, and wish to avoid legal bills, you can either invent them, or use lyrics from songs with Free Culture licenses (and abide by the terms of those licenses).

Unless you are under a severe time crunch, the very best way to find that one perfect lyric is to start exploring Free Culture music yourself, at any or all of the sites linked above.


As an addendum, I can add another way to explore Free Culture music. Last year, I did a first installment of a podcast meant to expose people to cool CC-licensed music.

The Creative Uncommons‘s first episode only got a few dozen listens and virtually no reaction, however; so, for that and other reasons, I let the project languish.

I have playlists for two more hour-long installments ready to go, and can easily put together many more, almost without thinking about it. And each of the playlists to date is entirely Free Culture.

If enough potential listeners are interested, I’m willing to take it up again, but, given my extremely limited financial means, I do need to make it pay. If you’re willing to support such a podcast, and/or know others who would be, leave a note in the comments or hit the contact form to send me a private email. If enough people seem interested, I’ll sit down, figure out what I’ll need to get back up and running, and put together a crowdfunding campaign. (Given my personal quirks, I may be foolish enough to do it with Bitcoin through the Lighthouse de-centralized crowdfunding platform, but we’ll see.)

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