re: Using Song Titles as Chapter Headers

in Contracts/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

My middle grade novel’s protagonist is moved when she learns a new song, which is at the heart of the book. Can I use the titles of published well-known songs as chapter headings? Will a publisher think this is too much work to get permission rights? There’s 15 chapters.

Sincerely,

June

Dear June…

Song titles are not protected under copyright law. For more on this, see the United States Copyright Office FAQ page. (It’ll also tell you about copyrighting your Elvis sighting, which tickles me to no end!) While your use doesn’t sound problematic, it is possible you could run into trademark issues. That is, some song titles are synonymous with the bands that made them famous and may be protected under trademark law. Remember the “Californication” legal fight between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Showtime a few years ago? If you intend to publish your project through a traditional publishing house, in-house legal staff can verify your use of the song titles, so go ahead and use the titles in your manuscript without worry. If you’re going to self-publish, you can settle your mind (and CYOB) by verifying your use of the titles with an intellectual property law attorney. I’m just an editor; they’re the ones who can give you the official legal thumbs-up.

Oh, by the way, the publisher won’t think “it’s too much work” at all . . . because most publishing contracts require the author to secure the permissions.

Happy writing!

The Editor

5 Comments

  1. Whew! I’m glad this isn’t a big deal- I didn’t even think to ask that question. In my WIP Chasing Manson, the section and chapter titles are all popular song titles from the 1960/70s. Thanks for answering that!

  2. I’m confused. If the in-house legal staff verifies the use of the song titles, then why would the author have to secure the permissions? Does the legal staff just tell the author if it’s legal or not or who they have to get permission from and then the author seeks out the permission? How difficult is this usually?

    I’m also curious what other things like this an author is responsible for (besides the fact that I am sure that the author is responsible for the work being their own original work), and if historically any of this has been a problem for authors. Or is it just legal technicalities on behalf of the publisher?

    • Generally, the in-house legal staff will tell you if permission is needed and how to go about securing the permission; you’re the one who does the legwork and pays the permission fee. It’s not hard legwork, just time-consuming. You tell the permission owner what your project is, how many books you’re going to print, the estimated cover price of your book, and the pub date; they’ll set your fee based on that information. They’ll often provide the exact wording for their permission citation on your copyright page, too.

      • I’m wondering if the same would apply to, say, creating a new tarot deck, using song titles to name the cards.
        As an example: the “Death” card might be titled “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, and the 6 of Swords might be “Don’t Pay the Ferry Man”.
        Wouldn’t be using any of the lyrics, just the titles.

  3. One cautionary tale: a university publisher (who shall remain nameless) once had an author use lines from a single song as chapter titles. No one at said publishing house caught the fact that what amounted to continuous song lyrics were being represented in the Table of Contents — until they were contacted by a lawyer representing the song’s copyright holder.

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