Copyright Conundrums

12 Oct

One of the challenges with independent publishing is figuring out for myself what’s in the public domain and what’s not as well as how the concept of fair use applies when it comes to the poems and songs I wish to quote in my novel. Apparently there’s no hard and fast definition of fair use. My copyeditor says I can quote 20 percent of the text of a poem or song without seeking permission.

If the songs and poems I wish to quote are not in the public domain, how do I go about getting permission to quote them? I assume that this is a task some person in some department at Random House takes care of for its authors, but I don’t have anyone like that. Doing research on the internet takes me to sites like, the Center for Social Media,, and the Chicago Manual of Style Online, where I learn, for example, that works published in the U.S. before 1923 are in the public domain and thus do not require permission for me to use them. What about the two poems published in the United Kingdom in 1915 and 1918 that I wish to quote? Do I need a lawyer?

Works published in the U.S. between 1926 and 1944—and I include four songs from that era in my text—have copyright protection for 28 years, which covers the songs I’m quoting until 1972 and that copyright could have been renewed for another 47 years, which takes us to 2019. How do I ascertain whether the copyright on these four songs was in fact renewed? Can ASCAP or EMI help? The ASCAP website seems to suggest I have to become a member in order to ask any questions of them. When I pushed deeper into their site, I searched for one of the song titles and nothing came up. When I called ASCAP member services, the guy said that’s because that particular song is a BMI song, not an ASCAP song.

Am I going to have to pay to quote the songs? Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think the publishers of the poems and songs I wish to quote should pay me for providing additional exposure to creative works that are old enough that they may have been completely forgotten without my help. That’s right: they should pay me–shouldn’t they?!


4 Replies to “Copyright Conundrums

  1. Hi Ames! I had to get the permissions for The Secret Life of Sleep. Mostly excerpts from poems and fiction, a radio show, no songs. I looked up the most recent edition of the work & emailed the publisher. Some sent me on to the author, translater, or a previous publisher. They usually answered pretty quickly, though some took a few months. If I didn’t hear back, got denied, or charged an exorbitant price, I cut the quote back or out altogether. I tend to agree that they should pay us for the exposure, but it’s a matter of intellectual property, and I always appreciate being asked, and even paid, for quotes from my first book.

    • You’re right, Kat, it is a matter of intellectual property and I can understand that you’d appreciate being asked for quotes from your books. I ended up paying to use one poem and cut the song quotes down to a few of the most relevant words.

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