Posted by Mr. Q at 6:00 AM Friday, July 20, 2012
Dear Rich: I'm trying to avoid seeking permission to mention a song in a novel I'm writing and plan to self-publish. I understand that song titles can't be copyrighted, but I'm wondering if quoting a single word from a named song will require permission, given the context: two of my characters are arguing about the lyrics to Kiss From a Rose, with one saying that a grave is mentioned in the song, and the other contending that the word is "gray" (which my research tells me is the case). One character also says that the lyrics refer to a kiss and a rose, but since these words are given in the song title, I would hope that they are safe. Am I on dangerous ground with the grave-versus-gray dialogue? Also, if one of my characters refers to Kiss From a Rose as "like, the cheesiest song in the world," would this be considered libelous? Let's address your last question first. You are not committing libel because you are not making a false statement. "Cheesiness" is defined as "trying too hard, unsubtle, and inauthentic." Therefore, we can conclude that Kiss From a Rose is actually like, the cheesiest song in the world (it's number two of cheesy songs on this list). Even if it was the third or fourth cheesiest song in the world (or didn't even make the top ten), you and your characters are free to diss any Seal song under First Amendment principles.
Using lyrics. It's fine for your characters to talk about songs and even quote one or two lines under fair use principles. (Spoiler Alert: In our humble opinion, Kiss From a Rose contains some of the strangest, most incomprehensible lyrics ever!) In any case, you should probably only consider seeking permission if you're using more than a couple of lines. We talk more about when permission is needed for song lyrics (and how to get it) in this book.