Public Domain Music in Audiobooks

One of the unexpected side effects of narrating audiobooks is working with authors and public domain books that have songs in them. My personal reading material tends toward science fiction and fantasy, so it’s no surprise I gravitate toward science fiction and fantasy in my narrating work. But those crazy science fiction and fantasy authors…they sometimes like to bring flavor to their world by writing songs that characters sometimes break into. It’s not a Disney musical or anything, but it can make for an interesting day of narrating.

When the author has also thought through the tune and has it handy, it makes things fairly simple. When the author hasn’t… Well, let’s just say I’m figuring out filking at an accelerated rate.

Some of the books I work on, though, are public domain, which is both a blessing and a curse when a song comes up. In an audiobook where referenced music is under copyright, you just can’t sing the song if one is present. (I have actually been bad and broken this once. It was one line in a book narrated for a not-for-profit organization.) In an audiobook where the referenced music is in the public domain, you can sing away. Theoretically.

At the moment, I’m working on a pair of public domain audiobooks where there are many songs that can be (and often are) read as poems even though they were written as songs. So when I was preparing the books for narration, I tried to find the original tunes. (There are a number of copyrighted versions of these songs, but I had no desire to approach those avenues.) I was able to find a few of the tunes, but one is a parody of a song that was popular at the time the books were written.

A song whose tune that has apparently been lost to time. (I combed music archives looking for it.)

So, what happens to a song in an audiobook when the public domain tune is no longer available? In this case, I felt like I couldn’t just randomly switch back and forth between singing the tunes I could find and reciting the poems the rest of the time, so I made the decision to just recite everything to keep things uniform. It hasn’t been the easiest decision. Heh.

As someone very interested in adaptation and rip-mix-burn, it’s been really interesting to actually be working with these copyright issues and trying to make the right decisions for the material and for my performance. Enlightening, really. I’m glad I’m getting this opportunity to explore the copyright lines in a practical setting.


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