Authors have been quoting song lyrics in their books for a very long time. 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.

From James Joyce to John Dos Passos to Nick Hornby, authors have been quoting song 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.

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.

How To Guide for Authors

Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 571 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."

58 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.

    1. w.k. dwyer says:

      that is exactly the right approach– avoid the Permissions process altogether. For about 6 songs took me nearly 2 years and was a huge pain that provided very little value added for my novel. Hard to believe that advertising for someone else’s work costs you money and time and is a ridiculous hassle.

  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?

    1. Paul Crepeau says:

      Song titles are not protected under copyright law, nor are album titles for that matter. Just in the music industry it is easy to find more than a few songs with matching titles. For example: Bob Dylan released an album eight years ago with a song he and Robert Hunter co-wrote titled “Jolene.” In no way does this song even resemble the well-known Dolly Parton classic by the same title. So, along this same line of thinking, if a song titled “Jolene were mentioned in a novel by name only, the author of such novel would not be guilty of copyright infringement.

  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.

    1. Wendy says:

      Nope. Not at all. Same copyright rules apply to all. Only thing about music is it can get dicey whether you’re using the “original” copyright, or someone’s “derivative” copyright.

  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?

    1. Wendy says:

      A copyright exists as soon as you set your creation in tangible form. Your secret diary that you kept under your bed as a tween is copyrighted. That said, proving the time of creation and that you’re the owner in order to defend it can get a little more complicated. That’s why they register things with the Library of Congress. Then there’s “fair use,” which SHOULD have been addressed in this article, but was completely ignored. For example, it is the nature of a reviewer to summarize and quote some passages of a work, without the ability to do so (or with the copyright owner being able to withhold permission for an unfavorable review), reviewers wouldn’t be able to be reviewers. Satirization is also protected (though some copyright owners have begged to differ, just google “2 Live Crew” and “Pretty Woman”)

  18. You can feel frequently to ask questions about how to download Bollywood music Karaoke without Lyrics or Vocals.

    1. Wendy says:

      If there’s no lyrics or vocals, what good is it to a writer? And if you’re creating some kind of audio work, music is just as protected as words.

  19. J Mart says:

    What if a describe the feeling of a song? For example, “My favorite song is Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror because it invokes a feeling of self reflection”. Would that pass?

    1. Wendy says:

      No issue. Titles themselves are not copyrightable.

  20. J Mart says:

    sorry let me rephrase the question. If I said something like, “In Michael Jackson’s man in the mirror song, the lyrics describe how you should reflect on yourself and make the change internally”. would this be clear of infringement?

  21. Tom Newton says:

    I used some lyrics from “Dancing cheek to cheek” by Irving Berlin ( 1932 I think) I had to find the company that owns the rights – send them the page which quoted the lyrics and the preceding and following pages. I was granted the worldwide rights for 5,000 units. It cost $150 and I had to send them a copy of the book. It was a relatively painless experience and took about ten days.

  22. Fair use / fair dealing is a bit more complex than that, but there’s a lot of misinformation put out by pro-copyright lobbies and others with a vested interest who will try and play-down the value and legitimacy of fair use arguments.

  23. Wendy says:

    This is a particularly unhelpful article. All it basically says is “stuff made after 1923 is under copyright” (that in itself isn’t entirely accurate: there are a few things before 1923 that still enjoy copyright protection, and a lot of things after 1923 that don’t). Hardly a revelation if you’ve read ANYTHING about copyright. Doesn’t even bother to mention that a title, an and of itself, is not copyrightable (I can talk about Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” all I want as long as I don’t quote anything actually within the work.) I thought there’d at least be SOME discussion on what conditions would constitute “fair use” and which ones don’t.

  24. If I were you, I would do more research on this. There are specific aspects of copyright law called “Fair Use” laws.

    Headline from: https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/fair-use-rule-copyright-material-30100.html

    The ‘Fair Use’ Rule: When Use of Copyrighted Material is Acceptable
    In some situations, you may make limited use of another’s copyrighted work without asking permission or infringing on the original copyright.

    Excerpt:

    Under the “fair use” rule of copyright law, an author may make limited use of another author’s work without asking permission. Fair use is based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. The fair use privilege is perhaps the most significant limitation on a copyright owner’s exclusive rights. If you write or publish, you need a basic understanding of what is and is not fair use.
    Uses That Are Generally Fair Uses

    Subject to some general limitations discussed later in this article, the following types of uses are usually deemed fair uses:

    > Criticism and comment — for example, quoting or excerpting a work in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment.
    > News reporting — for example, summarizing an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report.
    > Research and scholarship — for example, quoting a short passage in a scholarly, scientific, or technical work for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations.
    > Nonprofit educational uses — for example, photocopying of limited portions of written works by teachers for classroom use.
    > Parody — that is, a work that ridicules another, usually well-known, work by imitating it in a comic way.

    1. Dan ODea says:

      Thanks for the explanation of fair use!

  25. There are specific aspects of copyright law called “Fair Use rules”

    In some situations, you may make limited use of another’s copyrighted work without asking permission or infringing on the original copyright.

    Under the “fair use” rule of copyright law, an author may make limited use of another author’s work without asking permission. Fair use is based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. The fair use privilege is perhaps the most significant limitation on a copyright owner’s exclusive rights. If you write or publish, you need a basic understanding of what is and is not fair use.

    Uses That Are Generally Fair Uses

    > Criticism and comment — for example, quoting or excerpting a work in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment.
    > News reporting — for example, summarizing an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report.
    > Research and scholarship — for example, quoting a short passage in a scholarly, scientific, or technical work for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations.
    > Nonprofit educational uses — for example, photocopying of limited portions of written works by teachers for classroom use.
    > Parody — that is, a work that ridicules another, usually well-known, work by imitating it in a comic way.

    See article on Nolo dot com by Richard Stim (Nolo).

  26. JF says:

    You can always hire a music supervisor – their job is to pursue ALL types of music rights. Rule of thumb – the bigger the song, the less likely you’ll get a license or a response without big bucks. Hint – if you can find a band that’s almost forgotten, who is perhaps planning a comeback or a “remastered release of their (one) hit”, or something where your book would give them desired promo, you might have a better chance of clearance. But truly, just write a lyric and suggest a style to it. “Some thought he sounded like Sinatra when he sang, “Oh beautiful for spacious skies…”, others thought he sounded more like Bennett. (Whatevah!)

  27. Please note the 1923 date refers only to US lyricists. For any other country you must check on the details of both the copyright detail, and the life of the writer. Most countries worked to the life plus 50 years terms of the Berne Convention long before the US got round to signing up (1978). Since 1998 the term has changed to life plus 70 years in most countries.

    These rules can take copyright back into the nineteenth century. Take care.

  28. J Mart,

    So long as these are neither the exact words nor with only minor changes there should be no problem. Reflecting on a song poses few hazards – and those are mostly about libellous statements!

  29. Ken Burns says:

    What about movie lines? eg I’m an excellent driver.” Dustin Hoffman from Rainman.

  30. What about quoting a phrase from a song in an online article, or your blog, like, “you feel like… ( insert artists name and song title and then quote phrase ) adding, “You understand the meaning of the lyrics in(artists name) song, ( song title) because you walk around like a ghost in your own life ( woute partial lyric) agonizing because ( quote partial lyric)” would that be okay?

  31. This makes me curious about well known “Quotations” by famous or sometimes infamous persons throughout history. Would they be considered to be “public domain” if included in a book that also identifies and gives credit to the author of the quote? I would very much like to know the correct current legal interpretation on this subject.

  32. Mark Francis says:

    I have quoted frequently in my novels about the 17th century.

    So sue me Mr Milton!

  33. Sigurjon Helgi Kristjansson says:

    I did quote a lyric in one of my e-books, and treated it as I would any other quote, i.e. I gave the proper notation, that is to say, In the book it was mentioned, as XYZ, said in their song “quoted song”, and then came the lyric in italics (one verse only), that is to say, like any other copyrighted material, you are allowed to quote 200 words without paying royalties, but you MUST provide the proper bibliography. – Lyrics to songs are much shorter, so I quoted one verse, i.e. the one that was relevant, to the topic in question. By mentioning the performing artist, and the name of the song, was like a FREE ADVERT, to give the reader the option to purchase the track from a vendor. Which should be a win win situation.

    When quoting lyrics, I feel, that this is the right approach, i.e. quoting the source, and limiting the quotation, to the bridge, chorus/refrain, or one verse.

    The problem with todays litigious society, is that it is going to extremes; I mean, would I have to pay royalties, for saying: “Mary and Joseph, felt attracted to each other, and decided to rendezvouz ‘under the boardwalk’ “. – Would that mean that I would have to pay THE DRIFTERS royalties???? – No, not even if I said in the book: “That as they kissed on the “blanket on the ground”, the local radio station, was playing an oldie but goldie “Under the boardwalk” with The Drifters, which put a smile on their face, since that is where they were at.” Or if I added to it: “since it was Saturday Night, they decided to go to the movies, and do a bit of kissing in the back row.

    1. No. You can mention titles of songs as much as you want. It’s when you quote the lyrics that you must pay. It’s a pain in the butt to find the right licensing organization –it may take months of research– but if the lyric sets the mood, it can be worth it. However, in my debut novel, there were a few tunes for which I wrote my own lyrics.

  34. I quoted a Christian band, Kutlass, in my recent children’s novel, SOPHIE TOPFEATHER, SUPERSTAR! I did some research first, and found out that I needed to pay a fee (I believe it was about $40.00) for the rights to use the song. If I sell more than 5000 copies of the book, I will need to renegotiate the fee, but at that point, I think I’d be very happy to do that!

  35. JD says:

    I’m trying to find out what entails the ‘lyrics’ legally… bit of a weird question, but in my novel one of my characters is singing ‘whoa whoa whoa whoa’ from the chorus, (and I have put the title of the song she is singing.)

    That’s the only bit of the song quoted, but when I’ve done numerous searches for the lyrics of that song online those words are not mentioned. They are only sung on the band’s videos. Can I quote words from a song if they aren’t noted in the printed lyrics???

  36. Richard Ayre says:

    I wanted some song lyrics in my book ‘Minstrel’s Bargain’ by the rock band Magnum. I emailed the official fan club and got in touch with a lovely lady who asked Tony Clarkin (who wrote the song) if I could do that. He agreed and all he wanted in return was for me to acknowledge him as the author of those lyrics. It all depends on who the copyright belongs to I suppose, but I was really pleasantly surprised (not to mention very grateful) by how easy going he was about it. It was fantastic for me as I’ve been a fan for a very long time. So as a first recourse, just ask. I sent him a signed copy of the book as a small thank you.

  37. What if the lyric is lifted from something else that is already in the public domain? E.g., I found out that a certain lyric in a song I wanted to quote is actually a quotation from an Oscar Wilde play. In that case, can I quote it, since the band in question didn’t actually originate it?

  38. Dan ODea says:

    In a graphic novel I’m trying to get published, the protagonist is from 21st century Earth but is now living in a different universe. I wanted him to sing one line from a 1973 Jim Croce song – just one line. Looked into that and was told I’d have to pay for it.

    Well, OK, but if I quote an author or a poet (again, just one line), I can do it like this: “quote (author, title of work, year of publication)” and not get sued. But if I do that for a song, I CAN get sued. Why? What makes song lyrics so special?

    Someone is going to have to explain that to me.

    1. Dan says:

      Hey Dan, I am Dan, too 🙂

      “But if I do that for a song, I CAN get sued. Why?”

      It’s simple, just think about all the news stories we’ve heard since peer-to-peer sharing hit mainstream (near two decades now). Napster, Limewire, DRM – the RIAA is a greed-driven entity that caters to the egos of the ultra-famous and those who want to be, so they have a mandate to keep every penny in the right pocket, and all the music publishing companies act in the same way. Simon and Schuster don’t operate the same way 🙂

      Plus, the longevity of a song’s fame are entirely different. Once a song falls out of rotation on the radio, and CD sales fade, its profitability is only in things like covers, or book quoting. If it’s used without a fee, then someone will likely complain.

  39. I’ve been reading all this and comments. I get that mentioning the song title is fine, what about mentioning the band name along with song title?

    EG: I wrote that I’m driving down the road and listening to my favorite band, and here I put their name, then I say the song title. Is this okay? Just want to clarify, thank you

    1. I believe mentioning the band is just fine. It’s the actual lyrics that are the real issue.

  40. Loretta Krause says:

    In a story I’m writing, the protagonist’s daughter is named “Stevie,” after Stevie Nicks, bc her mother’s favorite song was “Leather & Lace.” I had quoted two lines of the song, but deleted them after reading info about what is and is not fair usage.
    Question is whether I can still say her daughter was names after Stevie Nicks, as the song is playing on their radio.
    One additional question: The main character turns, “a whiter shade of pale,” when he commits a faux pax. Must I add Procol Haram?
    From reading this blog, I believe I do.
    Thanks.

    Could you reply to my email (rettjk@yahoo.com). I do not blog, or tweet.

  41. Ferdiand Visco says:

    How about paraphrasing the story of song ?
    I quote title, author and singer then I paraphrase the story of the song and do not use actual lyrics.

  42. I’m so glad to see more information about this topic. I use song lyrics a few times in my unpublished book. I figured I would remove them if necessary (though one song’s lyrics frame one particular chapter) or get permission when the time came. After many years of frustration from agents (“we love your writing but don’t know if we can sell your book”), I’m going to self-publish at the end of this year. Two questions:
    1. What if you speak your lyrics? I’m doing a soft pre-launch for my book where I will be reading from it–think like a typical book reading. (I’ve done several at major bookstores in the past) My opinion is if you could be censored for speaking a musician’s song lyrics in public, most YouTube videos would need to be removed and karaoke would not exist. Thoughts?
    2. In Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, she sings lines from at least three songs. Now, she only sings one line. I could not find any permissions in the front or back matter of the book. One of my former mentors is good friends with Cheryl so I’m considering asking her if she would ask Cheryl how she got it past her book publisher’s legal department.
    Thank you!

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