Quoting Lyrics in BooksFrom James Joyce to John Dos Passos to Nick Hornby, authors have been quoting lyrics in their books for a very long time — and it makes sense; referencing a piece of music in such a direct way can, as a recent article from GalleyCat says, “set the mood, evoke a certain setting, or channel a particular emotion” with a minimum of words.

But if you plan to quote a lyric that was written after 1923, you should prepare to do some research — and get out your checkbook — long before releasing your book.

Why? Because music and lyrics written after 1923 are NOT in the public domain. The songwriters, those songwriters’ estates, and a publishing company or three may all control shares in the piece’s copyright.

The writers and publishers of the lyrics you want to quote are entitled by law to:

* deny you the right to quote the lyrics.

* grant you permission and set the terms for usage.

* ask you to pay them any fee they want for those usages.

* ignore all your requests until you throw your hands up in the air and decide to just invent some song lyrics of your own to fit the scene.

If you’re looking for info on how to legally quote lyrics in your book, check out this article on GalleyCat where they speak with Christopher Kenneally of the Copyright Clearance Center.

[Note: one additional resource for locating music publishers which Kenneally doesn’t mention is Harry Fox Agency.]

Have you used lyrics in your writing before? Did you clear that usage with the songwriter or music publisher? Let us know about the experience in the comments section below.

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Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 602 posts in this blog.

is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

24 thoughts on “How to legally quote song lyrics in your book

  1. Jan says:

    I have quoted quite a few songs in my debut novel, “Samuel’s Inheritance.” When I discovered copyright laws, I made changes that quoted the title and/or a vague reference to the lyrics. If that doesn’t do the trick, I’m going to make up songs.

  2. Does this include poetry or short excerpts from books? For instance can I use one stanza of a Leonard Cohen song? I haven’t been able to get permission to quote.

  3. In “The Virgin Whore Trial” there is a jazz singer who has a scene singing in a Chicago night club. It’s an important scene in the book, and mood was critical. Who knows the character better than the writer?

    So I wrote the lyrics myself and was very happy with how it turned out. I see a bit of a potential creative issue in using a well known lyric, in that it might be distracting from the story and the reader starts thinking “Oh, I saw that band in ’85 and was I drunk…” whatever… that said, if you are quoting some one do it properly, but have a back-up choice in case it doesn’t work out.

    I imagine it’s also okay to write something like, “So she invited back to her houseboat on the Seine, and put in an old Leonard Cohen cassette while she made Darjeeling tea…” That would set the mood perfectly accurately without having to quote a specific song.

  4. I quote song titles in my book but not the lyrics. Do I need to get permission for titles?

  5. E. R. Dee says:

    They’re usually going to want money and it’s usually going to be based on how many copies you print. They may also want to preview the book with the lyrics intact to make sure you don’t over use, misuse or abuse their works. And ASCAP and BMI can only tell you who the publisher is. You will probably need to go through the main clearing house for grand rights: The Harry Fox Agency NYC NY They have fees already set up. As an alternative use public domain material prior to 1923. The House of the Rising Sun and Frankie and Johnny are two such examples. Also consider using lesser known artists. The kind of artist who uses the equivalent of Book Baby, which is CDBaby or iTunes. These artists may let you do it for free or a credit or a link to their sale sites.

  6. David Anderson says:

    My quotes concern two bands-The Rolling Stones and Van Halen. The exact wording is “you can’t always get what you want” and “pretty woman yea, yea, yea.” My manuscript is unpublished at this time…can i use these words (and only the quotes listed above) without permission?

  7. Johnny Don't! says:

    Good article. My only comment is some advice for the authors out there: having dealt with the Harry Fox Agency as a musician, I highly recommend you avoid them at all costs. They’re a dinosaur in their field (meaning old), and they’re stuck in the 20th century. And somehow, they still feel entitled to charge entirely ridiculous amounts of money for the “services” they provide. Garbage. Avoid them like the plague.

  8. Gerry O'Sullivan says:

    Exactly this issue came up for me. I have a book called ‘Gangsters of Shanghai’ ISBN: 978-0-9874517-1-2 which is set in the Shanghai International Settlement in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

    Many scenes are in nightclubs, parties, opium dens, etc. In my draft I quoted the words of a song from the period. My editor reminded me that the same song had bee used in a major motion picture released a few years ago and, probably because of that, copyright had been renewed.

    He advised me to take it out, which I did, and simply referred to the song being sung, but without any quotation. Much safer, I think.

  9. Jo Carter says:

    I’ve just tried to find the copyright owner of a song I use the lyrics for, “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls and it’s hard enough finding the copyright, let alone asking permission! I’m not going to focus on it at the moment. I’ll probably have another stab at it before looking for an agent, and if not, get their advice. Awesome article!

  10. GR Oliver says:

    I guess I have to rewrite my book. Enough is said.

  11. SP Jones says:

    Great article, but what I’d like to know is whether the copyright holders ever bother to file a lawsuit. If so, how much would it cost the author who “illegally” quoted their work if they won their case in court?

    1. Charani says:

      Simple answer: yes.

      There are reports in the press about such cases. How much in the way of damages was paid isn’t always stated (eg ‘out of court settlement’).

  12. SP Jones says:

    I’m also wondering if the lyrics can be deliberately altered so that the author cannot get sued. For example “I can’t get no satisfaction” written as “I can’t get any satisfaction.”

    1. Charani says:

      You might be able to escape but it’s not worth the risk. The example you quote is too obvious as a rewording of the original. It’s why I wrote all my own lyrics when writing about a band.

      My book has never been published because I used the name of an English pub band, whose bassist I went out, which happened to be the same as a new, and at the time, unheard of American band. I couldn’t have afforded the legal fees and ‘compensation’ I’d have had to pay out.

  13. Diogeneia says:

    How do lyrics work for public domain? The song I want to quote is 40 years old. I know that there is some general copyright rule that says all “music” is copyrighted until 2064, but music is defined differently than lyrics.

  14. Kevin says:

    Interesting. How/why is this different from writing nonfiction and quoting other works with footnotes/endnotes, proper citation? Could one quote the song lyric, throw a superscript 1 in there and list them in the endnotes?

    1. Kerry Dexter says:

      The shortest answer: you would be quoting a much larger percentage of a song than you would of a book.That is one major reason copyright law for song lyrics differs from that for book excerpts — although in some ways it is the same issue, which is what constitutes fair use without infringing on the rights of the creator/copyright holder to control the use of the work.

  15. w.k. dwyer says:

    I’ll never use lyrics again in a novel. here is why: although it is easy to find an agent who knows how to obtain permissions, fill out forms, has the connections, etc, and agents are not terribly expensive, the publishers, artists, and their agents are for all intents and purposes incommunicado. i waited over a year and a half for lyrics for 10 or so songs, and in the end either got no response, got terse rejections for songs which i absolutely knew fit the message of my book (it’s why i chose them), or i got mixed responses, i.e. permissions for north america but nowhere else. There were never any reasons provided, there was no open communication established, no dialogue, nothing; just 2-3 months waiting around, an email from my agent saying no updates, another 6 months, a rejection or two, a “sorry for any inconvenience, etc. Publishers either do not have the time, are overprotective or they are just lazy, it’s hard to tell, but they are not responsive at all. It is way too much trouble to use lyrics, and a real shame that what could amount to free advertising for artists and songs is an opportunity the music industry does not take advantage of.

  16. Brooklyn says:

    Can i display a cd playlist in my fiction based novel?

    1. BookBaby BookBaby says:

      Hi Brooklyn,

      Is it just a playlist (a list of songs and the artist) contained within the text of your book? I don’t see any problems with such a list, so long as the songs are good. 😉

      Lucy

  17. Maggie says:

    i was planning on just naming the song instead of the lyrics because i was fuzzy on the legality, but i’m also wondering if this pertains to people writing on sites such as Wattpad, the authors include lyrics in their books all the time (excessively!) and name the song/artist in the footnotes, anybody know if this is okay?

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