Musicians/Actors' names in novels

by Cherry

Hello, I've been hearing that a writer shouldn't mention or quote a lyric of a song, due to the copyrights, but if a writer wants to mention the name of a musician or an actor in a quoted sentence said by a character in the story, would it be okay? Like for instance someone says...

"Driving on a highway with John Denver's song doesn't make you country boy from Texas"

...a normal silly sentence like that...would it be somehow illegal to even mention a singer's name? Whether they are modern ones or Classic?

Answer: As always, bear in mind that I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. That said here's my humble opinion...

I would not worry about mentioning the name of a famous person. The fact that someone is famous puts their name in the public domain.

Where you might get in trouble is if you made a false and slanderous claim about a famous person that might damage the financial interests of the person or their relatives.

The example you give, where you are paraphrasing a line from a song may be a bit of a grey area, but I still wouldn't worry about it. It's not as though your readers will decide not to purchase the song because now they know what it's about. If anything, I think they would be more likely to go out and buy the song in order to understand the reference, which would actually benefit whoever currently
owns the copyright on it.

Songwriters would only be hurting themselves if they create an environment where writers are afraid to mention their songs. It would be like sabotaging your own publicity campaign

You will, if you read widely, see references like this all the time in novels, which is proof that songwriters are not aggressively litigating these instances, because it's less expensive not to. Where you run the risk of litigation are cases where there is a lot of money to be made from it. Sadly, that's seldom the case in publishing.

But let's say you write a best seller, and one of the key dramatic points or motifs in the story is a lengthy quotation from a song. In that case, it might be worth the songwriter's while to sue for copyright infringement. In fact, it might even help both parties because it would be newsworthy (free publicity), and being in the news would lead to more sales for everyone. Of course, you may lose a chunk of royalties, which would be tough to take, and you would have to pay legal fees.

The other downside is that it would also expose you as a lesser writer because you would be relying on someone else's words rather than crafting your own to tell an effective story.

The good news is that your editor/publisher should be able to draw your attention to these issues in the publishing process, so you would have time to address any serious concerns.

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