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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[Headphones image from Shutterstock.]

Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 612 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."

4 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.

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