You Asked: Are Song Titles Copyright Protected?

sealWelcome to another, You Asked, the Experts Answer, segment. This week ‘s question: Can I use the title of a popular song and the artist name in a fictional story?

This week’s question is of particular interest to me. I’ve written a short story in which a song plays an integral role in the story. But, is it legal? So, what do the experts say?

Songwriters and the songs they create are protected by copyright law, the same way other creative works are protected. Yet, we’ve all read books that incorporate songs, lyrics, or the artist’s name in the storyline. So, it’s possible, but is it advisable? The answer depends on whether the song is under public domain or still copyright protected.

Most of us are familiar with the general definitions related to copyright law, but let’s look at the legal definition.


Public domain (as it pertains to copyright): the right of anyone to use literature, music, or other previously copyrighted materials, after the copyright period has expired. A rule of thumb would be that the last possible date for copyright protection would be 50 years after the death of the author. (See: Copyright)

Copyright: A copyright is a legal device that gives the creator of a literary, artistic, musical, or other creative work the sole right to publish and sell that work. Copyright owners have the right to control the reproduction of their work, including the right to receive payment for that reproduction. An author may grant or sell those rights to others, including publishers or recording companies. Violation of a copyright is called infringement.

Fair Use Doctrine: Fair use is a judicial doctrine that refers to a use of copyrighted material that does not infringe or violate the exclusive rights of the copyright holder.

What the Law Says:

  1. Creative works listed in the public domain are not protected by copyright. However, determining which are and which are not, can be time-consuming and expensive.
  2. Generally speaking, songs written and published before 1922 are public domain.
  3. Songs after 1977 do not fall under public domain and are protected by copyright.
  4. Songs that fall between the years, 1923-1977  will require research to determine their protection status.
  5. It’s possible to use creative works under the Fair Use Doctrine. However,    in order to claim Fair Use, very specific criteria must be met.
  6. Artists names and titles are considered public domain and are not protected by copyright. But, if you want to make the artist a character, watch out. There are very specific guidelines for doing so and not following or seeking advice can be extremely costly.

What are the Options?

  1. Ask Permission – You’ve heard the adage, “It’s easier to ask  forgiveness than permission,” but in this case, asking permission is the best policy.
  2. Seek legal counsel You might want to start with Hal Leonard, one of the biggest names in the music publishing industry.
  3. Decide to go another route – Instead of using the song or lyrics, depict the emotions the song evokes.

Copyright law is complicated, but it’s something in which, as writers and artists, we all need to be well versed. I have the answer for my story, but what about you? Still unsure? Before you take the chance, check out all the excellent resources below.


  1. Public Information Project – a compiled list based on USA Copyright Law and is available to help you research public domain music.
  2. Copyright Term and Public Domain – Research the copyright history.
  3. How to Use Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer and a Sample Permission Letter – From The Book DesignerHelen Sedwick.
  4. How to Use Celebrities and Other Real People in Your StoryBetter Novel Project, Guest post by Kathryn Goldman, Attorney for writers, artists, and businesses to protect their intellectual property.
  5. Is It Fair Use? 7 Questions to Ask Before Using Copyrighted MaterialJane Friedman – Guest post by Bradlee Frazer, Attorney.
  6. When Do You Need to Secure Permission?Jane Friedman
  7. Copyright Office – Frequently Ask Questions
  8. Copyright Litigation Blog
  9. A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use

I’d love to hear your comments. Talk to me. Tell me your story and look for me on Facebook at SheilaMGood,  PinterestBloglovinTwitter@sheilagood, and Contently.

Three Coaching Resources to Help You Finish that Novel

write-a-book I’ll admit, in the beginning writing a novel seemed as foreign to me as speaking intelligible French on my trip to Paris last year. The fact I didn’t know the language didn’t sway me. Besides, I had a niece living in Paris and a daughter who had retained some French from her high school days  at my side.  What could go wrong? As it turns not, nothing. I had the best resources available to me (minus the french guide) and it turned out the trip of a lifetime.

However, I’ve discovered writing a novel is a harder journey to make. In spite of reading dozens of how-to books and journals, I became overwhelmed.  ARC? Structure? Pinch point? Voice? POV?  I needed a translator.

After procrastinating, I decided to pull my WIP (current work in progress) from the dusty files of my desk. Apply the things I’d learned from the best of the best story coaches and finish the damn thing.

My Top Three

1.When it comes to my current WIP, no other story coach has helped me improve my process more than Larry Brooks, from Larry has written six novels, two best-selling books on writing (a third to come out this August) and offers coaching services. The tutorial on Concept and Premise made me sit up and take notice.  Don’t miss this valuable information. You can find it here. And, if you’re serious about writing a novel, check out his book, Story Engineering.


2. Janice Hardy at Fiction University is another great resource. Her book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, will help you nail it.

In addition, she offers an excellent workshop that will help you get your novel in tiptop shape. Revise Your Novel in 31 Days,


3. A novelist, copywrite editor, and writing coach, C.S. Larkin is another favorite. I don’t miss a day reading and taking notes from her blog, Live Write Thrive. If writing a novel has left you confused, her new book, The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction: Your Blueprint for Building a Strong Story,  will walk you through the process.

She has  also written, Writing the Heart of Your Story, Shoot Your Novel, and Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage. A tremendous resource, I encourage you to check out her books; all are available on Amazon.

What about you?

Do you have a WIP gathering dust or hidden away in a drawer? If so, I hope you feel inspired knowing these great resources are right at your fingertips.

I’m nearly 40,000 words into my novel and with the help of these excellent coaches and mentors, I intend to finish Hello Hell, one way or the other.  I’ll keep you abreast of my progress and you can keep me on task. So, stay tuned and let me know what you think. How’s your story going? Who will tell it if you don’t?

As always, I love feedback and comments.