A MetaFilter thread discusses the replacement of the rock songs on the old show WKRP in Cincinnati by generic music in the syndicated version to avoid paying hefty ASCAP fees for the original music. This strikes me as an idiotic situation (as several commenters point out, this way ASCAP and the musicians it represents get nothing rather than a reasonable fee), but I don’t watch much tv and only saw a few episodes of the show back in the day, so it caused me more head-shaking than angst. But this, in a comment by Slithy_Tove, really bothered me:

The situation with music lyrics is difficult for prose writers, too. One spec fic original anthology includes this in its guidelines:

Manuscripts which feature quotations from popular music or published authors will be rejected unread. It is difficult and expensive to clear rights for this sort of material, and the potential liabilities to both author and publisher are enormous.

Big Name Authors include popular song material in their stuff all the time, but I suppose they have enough economic clout that their publishers are willing to clear rights for them regardless of hassle or expense. For minor writers and small presses, though, it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth. Again, I don’t see how this benefits the IP rights holder. Wouldn’t they be better off making the process to obtain rights to quote lyrics easy, and make a little money from each use?

When authors are prevented from using common cultural coin in their writings, there’s something very wrong. I don’t know who makes the rules about the fees for such rights, but somebody should suggest to them that they moderate their greed.


  1. The two most nightmarish rights vampire stories I’ve heard of from novelist friends were for some “Sonny Boy” lyrics (extremely greedy Al Jolson estate) and some (corrected edition) lines from Emily Dickinson (extremely greedy Amherst College).
    In both cases, a big chunk of the novelists’ none-too-imposing advance money went to pay the uncreative profiteers.

  2. You have to pay for quoting Emily Dickinson?? What with this and learning that some college libraries charge $10/book for interlibrary loans, I’m about ready to hang it up. Couldn’t you, I don’t know, change the em dashes to en dashes or something? I can’t believe Emily would approve of this.

  3. A few months ago we took a trip down memory lane and borrowed the video of the spoof movie “Flying High” (which I know had a different name in the US but can’t remember it at the moment).
    We were very disappointed to notice that all of the songs had been replaced with less well known ditties. One scene has a character spoofing the dance scene from Saturday Night Fever, and in the original it was backed by the song of the same name. But on this video, it was replaced by a nameless disco track. Similarly, the Jaws theme song from the opening sequence was replaced with something else.
    I found it incredibly annoying – to remove songs (presumably for copyright reasons) which actually are incorporated into the plot.

  4. That’s Airplane, which I love, and I’m appalled – at least now I’ll know not to rent the video. This is really stupid. I can’t believe they can get away with it.

  5. Nobody makes the rules, it’s the result of treating copyright as absolute property. It’s pretty much the same situation as with real estate. Why do people prohibit trespassing rather than offering the right to walk on their land for a small fee? Because collection is hard and enforcement is harder. It’s easier to just say no (or alternatively just say yes, if you are not fussed about trespass).

    As for Emily Dickinson, the unbowdlerized urtexts weren’t published until the 1920s, so they are still in copyright, although the versions published in her lifetime are in the public domain. Of course there are worse honey traps than this, as in the 1755 letter by John Adams that will remain in copyright until 2052.

  6. David Marjanović says

    I naturally asked the Questionless Question; the response begins here.

  7. Has Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize done anything to change this? Surely there must be plenty of people quoting Dylan in connection with the prize. Are all those quotations open to challenge for copyright infringement?

  8. January First-of-May says

    That said, as someone noted (I forgot where exactly), there’s only about 15 months left for the US Congress to actually get its collective arse together* and expand the terms again before the 1920s stuff finally starts entering public domain territory.

    And with how dysfunctional said Congress had been lately…

    *) I probably completely misquoted that particular phrase

  9. Congress can always change the law retroactively, so that things that leak into the public domain go back into copyright. Because copyright is a civil matter, ex post facto laws aren’t a constitutional problem, though existing uses of what used to be public domain are normally grandfathered.

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