If a music artist wants to record someone else’s song, there is a set fee for that use, but rights and fees are entirely up to the publisher when it comes to printing lyrics in books. If you don’t want to violate US Copyright Code, read on.

Our blog post, “How to legally quote song lyrics in your book,” provoked so many comments and questions that we decided to write another post about lyrics in books to answer them. Here it is, presented as a one-on-one conversation with you, my valued reader.

How do I legally quote song lyrics in my book?

Don’t do it.

No, really.

Trust me. If you want to legally print the lyrics of a popular song in your book to set a mood, have a character sing along with the radio, or use as a lead-in to your chapters, you need permission from the copyright owner. Getting this permission will very likely be:

  1. Maddening
  2. Expensive
  3. Impossible

I recommend you don’t do it.

Authors can’t quote song lyrics in books without permission?

Not without violating US Copyright Code.

But it’s really important to me. There MUST be a way. I’ve seen other writers do it.

There is a way to do it, and it may only cost you hundreds of dollars. It may cost thousands of dollars. The process can take anywhere from weeks to never. Your request may be denied for no reason. There’ll very probably be no back-and-forth.

And consider this: Just because a song has a specific meaning for you, you don’t know your readers are going to react the same way. They’ll be bringing their own lyrical baggage with them.

But… you can quote song titles without permission. In fact, you can quote song titles, album titles, movie titles, book titles, and article titles, all day, every day. You can write, “She turned on the radio and flipped through the stations until she heard Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire.’ She sang along, drumming on the steering wheel, desperately trying to forget about her husband…”

No. I want to quote the lyrics.

You could always write your own lyrics. That will really show off your writing skills.

That’s not what I want and you know it.

Fine. Here’s what you do.

Step one: Track down the publisher of the song. Not the band. Not the songwriter. The publisher. This information is not always readily available. For example, do a search for “Bird on a Wire publisher” and see what you get. Not very helpful. For better results, search “Bird on a Wire Leonard Cohen sheet music.” You will find that the publisher of this song is a little mom-and-pop organization called Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

Actually, Sony/ATV is the largest music publisher in the world. This is probably the first place you should look. They publish the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Carole King, Queen, the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Pink, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, and, yes, Leonard Cohen.

Hal Leonard is another popular publisher.

Speaking of Hal Leonard, Heather O’Brien, a writer who commented on the original article, had this to say:

I [used] a major portion of Don McLean’s “American Pie” in The Ties That Bind, the first book of my series…. I deal with Hal Leonard. They’ve been accommodating but very slow. I recently re-released a new edition of the book and had to get a new permission contract. They have a minimum charge now, whether you use one word or all the lyrics. That minimum covers “x” amount of copies and then must be renewed. They have a most favored nations clause in the contract, so be sure you read it carefully for things like that. Also, the contract comes after they agree and after you pay. Be sure it includes every word you requested. I had to ask for a revision.

You can also search the big performance-rights organizations.

If you’re having trouble finding the publisher, the Music Publishers Association has a list of every music publisher out there. You can use this directory to visit every website and search for the song you want.

Sometimes it pays to visit the artist’s website, because that may have all the info you need. For example, here is Joni Mitchell’s permissions page.

Easy Song Licensing can also help.

Step two: Ask for permission. Usually, this means filling out a form on the publisher’s website. Search for information related to licensing and permissions, or look for a Print License. On Sony/ATV’s site, their license inquiry is located on their Synch page.

So that’s it?

Not necessarily. Are you also making an audiobook? You’ll need another permissions agreement and have to spend more money. Are you looking to sell your book overseas? You may need a different agreement from a different publisher. Are you looking to include hip hop lyrics? You may have to deal with more than one publisher. For example, “All of the Lights” by Kanye West has 10 different publishers.

What if I skip all of that, quote the lyrics without permission, and hope no one ever finds out?

They’ll find you and sue you. You will lose.

Can’t I just plead fair use?

If you are writing a scholarly work or a critical review, you may have permission under fair use. But using someone else’s lyrics in your work of fiction is not fair use.

Doesn’t parody count as fair use? My book is funny!

Parody does count, but be careful. Just because your book is humorous does not mean you can use a song and call it fair use. You have to be satirizing the song you are quoting. Parody is not something that is cut and dry. Just because you think you are writing a parody does not mean you won’t be sued by an eager publisher. If you are sued, it will be up to a judge to determine if your use of the lyrics can be classified as protected under fair use. Judges don’t always have a great sense of humor.

Here is more information regarding fair use.

Doesn’t it count as fair use if my book doesn’t sell very many copies?


What if I put a little asterisk next to the lyrics and say, “Copyright Leonard Cohen?”


What if I only quote a couple of words?

Short answer: Aside from the title, there is no minimum amount of a song that can be quoted when using lyrics in books.

Longer answer: When it comes to the law, there are few absolutes. It’s possible you could be OK, depending on the song and the use and the number of words, but you don’t want to risk it. Fighting it in court is going to be expensive.

This “no minimum” when it comes to the number of words you quote includes:

  • If you “almost” quote a song (where it’s mostly the same, but you alter a few words).
  • If you break up the lyrics, so they’re not all presented together (e.g. You use a few lyrics, then there’s some action, then you use some more lyrics).

What if my main character is all meta, and he’s constantly referencing other works, because that’s how meta people talk, and, like, this is an essential part of his character?

You should write a new character.

What if I quote the screams and shouts of a sound recording that aren’t actually lyrics?

Avoid quoting anything you did not write. If you have someone scream, “Haiye!” and another character says, “You sound like James Brown,” that’s OK.

What if the songwriter is a personal friend of mine and they’re letting me quote their song for free?

How sweet. Get it in writing. Also, double check that your friend is, in fact, the sole owner of the copyright and that the song has not been published by Sony/ATV or Hal Leonard or some other organization who may come after you. Musicians don’t always know these things and you don’t want to take their word for it.

You say the permissions process is going to take “forever.” How long are we really talking?

Hal Leonard’s site says to allows four-to-six weeks. But it could take months. Many months. Or never. Seriously. Several authors commented on our last post that they never heard back from the publisher. One reader, W.K. Dwyer, said it took nearly two years to get permission for six songs.

You also say it’s expensive. How much are we talking?

In music, if an artist wants to cover someone else’s song, there is a set fee: 9.1¢ per copy made. So, if you make 1,000 CDs that feature a cover of “Bird on a Wire,” you would owe $91. Unfortunately, there is no set fee when it comes to reprinting lyrics in books. It’s entirely up to the publisher. It could be free (unlikely), it could be hundreds of dollars (likely), it could be more. Author Adam Mitzner detailed his efforts to include Coldplay lyrics in one of his novels. Long story short: It was going to cost him $100 for every 5,000 copies sold. His publisher advised him to lose the lyrics. He decided to keep them, and he paid up. But when he wrote his next book, he wrote his own lyrics.

What if the song is licensed through Creative Commons?

You may not need permission to use material licensed through Creative Commons. But it can be tricky to find what you want, and not everything is free to use. Learn more at CreativeCommons.org.

Can I include a playlist?

If it is just a list of song titles, yes.

Can I say someone turned “a whiter shade of pale” without crediting Procol Harum?

Yes. That is using a song title.

What if one character says to the other: “Jenny drove me home the other night because I was drunk.” And the other says, “Does she get all jealous when you hang out with the guys?” This is a reference to — but not a direct quote of — “Josie” by Blink 182.

Probably? (You can read the full lyrics here if you’re interested.)

What if I’m using a song lyric at the very beginning of the book? Or as part of the acknowledgements or the dedication?

Not without a clearance, you’re not.

You said titles were OK, but what if they are singing the title in the song? Is it still OK to use those words?

If you are using the exact title — no matter how often it’s sung in the song — you are OK to use that without permission.

What if I’m quoting a hymn?

Many hymns are copyrighted. You can check here.

How come I can quote poems or books but not songs?

The music industry has better lawyers.

What about movies? Can I quote movies?

The same rules that apply for songs apply for movies. Good luck getting permission.

Can I quote names from songs or movies?


OK… What if I’m reading my book aloud and I quote lyrics and it’s only a small group who hears it? Or… What if ONLY my family is going to read it? Uncle Charlie is blind in one eye and has dyspepsia.

I think you know the legal answers to these questions.

This is totally outrageous! We’re offering them free advertising! They should be paying us to include their lyrics in books!

You know what would put them in their place? Denying them free advertising by NOT putting their lyrics in your book!

There must be some examples of success here. Hasn’t anyone had a good experience quoting lyrics in their book?

Yes. It does happen. Tom Newton, an author who commented on our last article, said: “I used some lyrics from ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek’ by Irving Berlin … I had to find the company that owns the rights — send them the page which quoted the lyrics [as well as] 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.”

Thanks, Scott.

You too. Good chat.


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Scott McCormick

About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick has written 16 posts in this blog.

Scott McCormick is the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com. Photo credit Karen Cooley.

9 thoughts on “Lyrics In Books: Your Questions Answered

  1. Mary says:

    If I have written a hymn can I say it goes to the tune of: “Just as I am”
    without getting permission?

    1. BookBaby BookBaby says:

      Yes, you just can’t record a version of your hymn without getting permission.

  2. Love it! Very entertaining way to learn some valuable information. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this thorough explanation. I’ve had to talk several writing clients out of using lyrics.

  4. TXRed says:

    And you might discover (as I did) that the rights to a song are in litigation limbo and three different individuals or organizations claim the rights.

    I made up something rather than wading into that quagmire.

  5. Jan Bear says:

    Thanks for this. Here’s something I’ve wondered for a while. What if you want to suggest a song and write different lyrics to the same rhythm. For example (bad example, but bear with me): “Every light you light, every time you fight, I will walk with you.”

    If the “every”s in that line make it illegal, what about “When you light your porch, when you light a torch, I will be with you.” (Again, really bad, but you get the idea.)


    1. BookBaby Andre says:

      I’m not a lawyer, but if you’re just printing that in a book, there’s no infringement. Not sure what recourse you have if Sting decides to use your new lyrics, though…

  6. Whit says:

    And public domain lyrics? Are those a different ballgame? And with audiobooks?

    1. BookBaby Andre says:

      If the lyrics are public domain, you’re free to use them in your book and audiobook.

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