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Can you include song lyrics in your screenplay?

By August 7, 2020 No Comments

Every film or television producer, or consultant, it seems is regularly asked this question: “Can I include song lyrics in my screenplay?”

There are two schools of thought as it relates to an answer. Producer 1: “Sure, as long as you express outright that you do not have the rights” (if that’s the case). Or, Producer 2: “Not under any circumstances. It makes your script appear unprofessional and you as the writer inexperienced or naive.”

In other words, it depends on who you ask.

The bottom line of both opinions is that you cannot, of course, actually use any copyrighted song in your film or television show, if produced, without the rights.

Fun fact: song lyrics in screenplays are one of the most common reasons that registrations are rejected from our Copyright Registration Service.

So, how do you go about attaining the rights to use song lyrics?

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The tried and true response in all cases is to have an attorney look at any contract prior to signing, and to guide you through the process of rights attainment. If you are not yet that far, and you simply want to include the name of a certain song, or some lyrics of that song to set a mood in your scene, consider the following:

  • Do you want to take a chance and alienate a producer with the second possibility, above? Is it worth the risk?
  • Or, is there I way I can mention the song and/or include lyrics in the script without being egregious about it and implying any rights ownership?

To the second question, yes there is.

Here are some examples how:

  • Original: The zombie versions of Mike and Daphne sway to Marilyn Manson’s cover of The Doors’ “The End” remix.    
  • Revision: The zombie versions of Mike and Daphne sway to a goth remix of a dark rock standard.

In much the same way as a cardinal rule in screenwriting is to never do the director’s job — as in, do not include camera angles and other specific directorial instruction unless you are directing the screenplay yourself (and even then, in the event of outside funding, not until you have a financed  shooting draft ready to go) — use discretion in all instances when it comes to using the names of songs or their lyrics.

If you do incorporate lyrics into your script (we will get to how and why in a moment) always italicize them.

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The Public Domain

Public domain songs (and any written art in general) are those that have either fallen out of copyright, or have never been copyrighted at all and/or ownership is unclaimed.

Song copyrights in the U.S. last 70 years after the death of an author, such as those created on or after January 1, 1978. Based on publication or registration dates, protection can extend up to 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. I encourage you to speak to an attorney experienced in music law for specifics.

Copyright terms can be extended in certain circumstances, but they generally fall into the public domain once copyright ends. That means, for all intents, anyone can use the songs for commercial purposes without paying an owner for rights.

The difficulty arises when one considers using a song they believe is public domain, but is in fact not. Many an artist has been sued for such illegal use, so please use discretion.

A simple internet search for the office of Copyrights, or phone call to ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), will also lead you in the right direction to determine a song’s status, though I would still retain an attorney for this purpose.

I cannot stress that enough.

Also, the internet can be a terrific resource for finding music catalogs containing songs you can license for film and television. Never assume, however, that the studio or network will pay for them.

And if you have a screenplay based on a story that’s in the public domain, consider our annual True Story & Public Domain Screenplay Competition!

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Back to our screenplays.

My advice is to not take too many chances and risk incurring the wrath of the Producer 2-types, above. In your script, go with the Mike and Daphne Revision example. Finally, on your hunt to license rights so you can use them in your script with no recourse, retain an attorney.

In our business, especially, it’s far better to be safe than sorry.

So the short answer is: avoid using song lyrics in your screenplay, or if you do use song lyrics, add a cheeky parenthetical note to the reader that you don’t have the rights to the song, but of course a studio could get the rights if they wanted to.

Thank you for reading.

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning writer and producer, and partner in Council Tree Productions, a television development company. He writes and edits a publication for Medium, “Writing For Your Life,” which you can follow here.  

Related ScreenCraft articles:

How to Get Representation for Your Writing (by ScreenCraft winner Anna Klassen)

9 Tips for Finding Your Authentic Voice as a Screenwriter