Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Rogers & Hammerstein, May I? (Jody Feldman on the June Theme, Permissions)

  So there I was several years ago, hatching a great idea for The Seventh Level. As part of the plot, I was going to cobble together a puzzle using musical notes.

To bring you up to speed, all my published and contracted kid novels contain a puzzle element. It’s not that I plop a crossword puzzle into the middle of page 74 then tell you to find the solution on page 258. I work to integrate puzzles into the stories themselves which, at times, paints me into a corner. The characters not only need the smarts or experiences to solve these puzzles, they also must guide the readers through their reasoning. The easiest way to do that is through some sort of shared experience. I have been known, for example, to work in a necessary fact or two earlier in my stories so all careful readers are equipped to solve the challenges on their own.

Back to the musical note puzzle...
I would undoubtedly have a number of readers familiar with the musical scales—the note letters and their do-re-mi counterparts. But I needed to get that idea across clearly and naturally to those whose experiences were minimal. I needed a method to jog their memories. I needed  Do-Re-Mi, the Rogers and Hammerstein tune from The Sound of Music. So I wrote that section of The Seventh Level having my main character quote twelve words of the doe, a deer part.

Fast forward to revisions and a note from my editor which included a “by the way, did you get permission to use that?” Um, no. It was only a small part of a very common song, right? Twelve words. I could use that. Right? Right? Please, right?

I emailed the people in charge of licensing for their blessing. I was willing, in the name of my work, to pay the Rogers and Hammerstein folks a couple hundred dollars if I had to. (Acquiring permissions, I quickly found out, is the responsibility and at the expense of the author.) It turned out that using those few words would not only cost four figures initially, it would cost me every time the book was reprinted, hardcover or paperback.

As I squashed those twelve words, it necessarily ignited my creativity. When I rewrote Chapter 25, I did refer to “that famous song” and I figured out how to use the important words in a generic way and it all somehow worked. Now, though, if a little voice tells me it’s a great idea to make good use of copyrighted material in my book, I retrieve that mental flyswatter and choose my own words. It's a lot cheaper that way, and you don't need to ask permission.

10 comments:

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    1. Sometimes we're forced into new ideas :)

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  2. I totally agree--it's always better in your own words!

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    1. I'll agree with you mostly here, though in this case, I had some darlings I needed to kill along with the copyrighted lyrics C'est la vie!

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  3. That's an important reminder (and probably surprising news to some writers)! I once nearly made this mistake with a line from an '80s hit pop song, but was stopped in time.

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  4. Oh well, you would think they would be glad to get the publicity :o) I have a few words from a 60s song in my latest MG manuscript, I guess maybe I'll have to scrap that part. Just wondering, does copyright disappear after so many years?

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    1. I know, right?
      There are some songs and music and books that have reverted to the public domain, but heirs and other rights holders can re-up copyrights for a long, long time. If you want to use those words, I'd hunt down the copyright holder (perhaps on the album cover?) and ask permission. The worst that could happen, you'll need to get creative. Good luck!

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  5. That's good to know! Glad you were able to find a workaround.

    *slinks off to reread for pop culture references in current WIP*

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    1. It wasn't without a little mourning first for some lost darlings :)

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