Author and poet Blake Morrison has an article at the Guardian’s website about using song lyrics in your fiction. It’s an excellent cautionary tale, and the moral of the story is given in the lead. Read it here.
In the non-fiction editing I do, I have to let the publisher know if I come across three words or more of lyrics that aren’t in the public domain (generally regarded as anything written before 1923). So what Morrison has written isn’t surprising to me, but I’m glad he’s given us the benefit of his learning curve. (The sums of money are given in British pounds. As of even date, the exchange rate is £1.5 equals $1.)
Morrison’s article refers to the laws in Great Britain, but there’s no substantial difference (so far as I can tell) here in the United States in copyright protections and remedies for violations. All these years, whenever someone has sung The Birthday Song in a TV show or movie or play, or written the words in a work of fiction, they’ve had to pay for the privilege. It’s not in the public domain; the authors have passed on, but Warner Music Group still owns the rights. As a refresher, see the U.S. Copyright Office’s page concerning Fair Use.
There are two simple ways to get around this: use the song’s title to refer to it, or paraphrase the lyrics. Here’s a combined example: “That was Jerry Lee Lewis with his Great Balls of Fire,” the announcer said. Jeff turned the radio off. “The only nerve-shaking and brain-rattling I’m interested in will be when that rocket lifts off tomorrow. That’s the only ball of fire I care about, too.” Do it without the announcer and readers still can figure out what song you’re referring to and it’s safe.
If you’re serious about using some lyrics, you have to contact the person who holds those rights. That can get terribly tricky because ownership of lyrics bounces around like paperbacks at a yard sale. It may well be that neither the lyricist nor the publisher own the rights. If it’s an older song still covered by copyright, you may find the publisher has gone out of business. Then you’re into some detective work on top of whatever the rights owner will charge you.
The laws don’t change just because you’re writing for fun or are selling your work on a limited scale. Here’s an instructive anecdote: Broadway playwright George S. Kaufman discovered that one of his plays was being staged by a summer-stock producer who hadn’t paid for the privilege. The fellow told Kaufman, “It’s only a small, insignificant theater.” Kaufman responded, “Then you’ll go to a small, insignificant jail.”
Re-read Morrison’s lead. That’s the bottom line.