Quote at your peril

Fiction author, poet and journalist Blake Morrision recently warned authors of the dangers of quoting even a few words of the lyrics of a pop song, based on his own rather expensive experiences. In a Guardian article he listed the amounts he'd had to pay rights-holders (or rights managers) after using their words to add flavour to his fiction. Quoting a line of "Wonderwall" by Oasis cost him £535; a single line of " Jumpin' Jack Flash" set him back £500 and one evocative line of "When I'm Sixty-four" £735.

Stylistic flourishes involving "borrowings" from pop songs have cost Blake an estimated £4401.75 over the course of his career, excluding VAT.

Rock stars and their estates and managers are quite within their rights to claim compensation in such cases and, as Blake admits, it could have been a lot worse. The above sums were what Blake' sympathetic but wary publisher paid up front. The publisher agreed to split the costs with Blake. Had the rightsholders found and acted upon any unauthorised citation of the above lyrics, the bill would have been substantially higher.

While current copyright legislation allows punitive damages to be awarded for unauthorised quoting of a "substantial part" of a work, determining what is a substantial part of a not very wordy song is the hard part, and the record companies have better-paid lawyers than your average freelance. Record labels' legal departments also have a less artistic attitude than your average writer, especially in these days when much less of the "revenue stream" is coming in from sales of the song than they've been accustomed to. Blake's latest book refrains from going into the words of whatever track is playing in a particular scene, and leaves the reader to fill in (or look up) what it would sound like.

Journalists, however, are safer quoting lyrics for the purposes of a critique or review - or, maybe, reporting the news. See our detailed guide to "fair dealing" and the copyright implications of quoting someone else - in any work.

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