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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.
ASCAP
BMI
SESAC

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?

Nope.

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

Nope.

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?

Yes.

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 18 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.

58 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.)

    Thanks.

    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…

      1. Nick Oosterveen says:

        Thanks Andre,
        How about quoting a poem by Michelangelo, or lyrics of a Verdi opera?

        1. BookBaby BookBaby says:

          I don’t believe those works would be covered by any modern copyright law, or who might claim ownership of those types of works, but I’d still do a search for a publisher to be certain.

  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.

  7. Deb says:

    So you can’t quote a line from a movie? For instance, two friends in a novel quote the line to one another from time to time, it’s their favorite movie.

  8. Emily says:

    I don’t have any lyrics in my book, for the exact fears of lawsuits stated here, but I do mention quite a few bands by name, along with albums and song titles. You said titles are fine, but just to be clear, characters discussing real artists by their name should be kosher? I also link on my website to a Spotify playlist that includes all these mentioned songs and artists, would this infringe on anything?

    1. Scott says:

      You can quote titles or names, no problem. Your playlist is fine, too.

  9. I learned this as an editor for a major publisher. We never allowed our authors to do it, and I wouldn’t do it either. It isn’t worth the effort. Authors have a whole lot more important things to worry about, like writing a really good book.

  10. In a science fiction audio drama I wrote, I wanted to include a few lines from Eton John’s “Rocket Man,” sung basically like a bar song by half-drunk scientists. I knew enough about copyright that gaining permission to use the song at a reasonable price was questionable. There’s an automatic fee for recording a song, but using the song in a dramatic production requires permission and money. But there’s zero cost to asking. I found out who handled the rights, made the call, and was connected to the right person in minutes. He listened politely as I told him that I wanted to use just a few lines from the song, and explained a couple of the lines would be sung by drunken scientists on Mars. If he was going to object, I wanted him to object up front rather than sue me later. We talked for a few minutes, maintaining a professional demeanor on both sides, then he said he would get back to me. Within 15 minutes he did and told me “No.” I thanked him for his time and consideration, then called up a friend who is a local songwriter to see if he could come up with an original song for the scene. He did, and I think it worked better than my original choice.

    Lessons: 1) It never hurts, or costs, to ask; 2) Be ready to go to Plan B. It may turn out better than Plan A.

  11. Thank you. Very timely. Now I’m going to go back through and make some changes. : )

  12. Gifford MacShane says:

    I understood that rights expire 70 years after the author’s death so, for instance, I could quote from one of Stephen Foster’s songs (eg: Beautiful Dreamer) without permission. Is that accurate?

    1. Scott McCormick says:

      We urge you to use the resources we have included above to triple check that the song in question is in fact in the public domain before using it in your book.

      1. Yikes! I self-published a book that has two lyrics quoted, but they’re originally WW1 songs. When did they start copyrighting lyrics? Does anyone know?

    2. Wendy says:

      Most songs (and everything else) written before 1923 are public domain. Most everything written after 1978 is under copyright. Between them is a huge gray area.

  13. Great article. I wanted to use 4 words of a song in a memoir I’m writing and ended up researching at ASCAP due to my editor’s warning. Head spinning with all the regulations, I decided to scrap it and just used a little ingenuity to revise the story without the lyric. Thanks for this great piece.

  14. Amanda Hard says:

    What an informative and hilarious read! Thank you!

  15. Roxanne says:

    By the way, there is no ‘set fee’ for recording another persons song. Once a song has been recorded, anyone can perform it, and release it.. you just need to let the publisher know so that they are aware that royalties from possible sales are coming.

    1. BookBaby BookBaby says:

      Incorrect. If you are recording a song for release, even if it is only digital, you are required to pay the copyright owner for every copy you produce (or pre-pay for batches of downloads/streams). You are free to perform any song live, but the venue is required to pay for the performance of the song, typically through standard fees paid to the PROs.

  16. Wendy says:

    A fellow member of my local writer’s group writes plays for church productions. She had a song she wanted to use in a particular play that had been written sometime in the 1980s. She looked high and low for the publisher, even asking the Library of Congress for help. She finally took their advice and used it with a notice that she was publishing it as “fair use” after “good faith effort” to locate the publisher.

    It’s not a “go to” solution for everyone, and increasingly risky for a larger distribution, but also increasingly more likely to occur. The ridiculous length of post-1978 copyright protections combined with the uptick in “demise with no heir” corporations has created a huge quagmire of orphaned copyrights.

  17. Elma says:

    This was fun to read. Thanks, Scott. And now we know.

  18. Lainie says:

    As a poet, I created my own lyrics. The trick is to write the way your characters speak; write what they wish to say, as opposed to lyrics you would say. I wrote a scene of bad poetry for two characters to recite to each other at their wedding.
    This may be a new field for me: writing lyrics for use in books.

  19. Benjamin D. Copple says:

    This was suuuuuuper helpful. I’ve always worried about quoting song lyrics. Please write more articles like this!

  20. It did take time and effort to contact the lyricist for “The Impossible Dream” and get written permission several years ago, for “Paradigm Busters, Reveal the Real You”. He wanted to know why I needed the words. I related my story that I had accomplished the impossible in my life. He was impressed and there was no charge. I was told how to give the right acknowledgement. He was glad to assist me.

    However, I also wanted to use the words to “Accentuate the Positive”. After several tries, I gave up and just told the message in my words to my readers. I did finally find the right contact, but then I had given up and decided one set of actual lyrics were enough.

  21. Babs says:

    So not even if we change a few words? Nuts! Thank you for clearing that up.

  22. Emily Shore says:

    I wish you had addressed song lyrics from a play. This is NEVER addressed. It’s not just a song reference or my characters singing a random song in a random scene. My characters are rehearsing a play and the story is a modern retelling of that play where the theme from that play is a similar theme. So, herego, my characters are acting out the Phantom of the Opera and the emotions they work out in rehearsal of the scenes from the POTO are inherent to the plot and development of the characters. Now, schools can easily get permission to use the lyrics and act out the play all the time. Can this work out more effectively and in a cheaper way for using a Broadway play lyrics in a book?

    If not, and for example if the lyrics are: “Pity comes too late, turn around and face your fate, an eternity of this before your eyes…” And instead of quoting the lyrics, is a redirection acceptable i.e: He forced my hand to his flawless face, and sung in a powerful tenor about how my pity is too late and I must face this fate, which is an eternity spent with this miserable deformity. So, a part of the lyric quoted but not the entirety? Again, these sort of emotions must be conveyed in order for the character development to be conveyed.

    1. BookBaby BookBaby says:

      Same rules apply. Look for the publisheer’s info and proceed. Works in a musical play need to be copyrighted like anything else.

      1. Emily RotziShore says:

        So, is a redirection acceptable i.e: if the lyrics are: “Pity comes too late, turn around and face your fate…” instead, write: He sung in a powerful tenor about how my pity is too late and I must face this fate etc… So, a part of the lyric quoted but not the entirety?

  23. I’m working on a novel with a title that consists of two words that I heard in a song. Is that okay, or would the same rules apply? I don’t know how they’d ever be able to prove I got the words from a song, but still, I don’t want to open a can of worms.

    1. Scott McCormick says:

      Proceed with caution. If you’re using words that can be found in that combination in many songs, you should be ok. If your words are obviously from a song then I would avoid it.

  24. Cassandra Moore says:

    How about fake group song or lyric that also copyrighted if you use a name of a pop song as a title of your book do you still have to paid the artist

  25. Forest Wells says:

    “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.”

    Ok, that one doesn’t help. I get the idea of the answer, but I could see this being an actual, real dilemma. Maybe not exactly, but still valid. I’d have appreciated a more tactful answer, with a bit more advice on this one. It’s often VERY hard to simply up and create a whole new character.

    The rest, a bit depressing I will admit, but also helpful.

  26. Glade Swope says:

    “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?”
    Great solution to that one: works that are in the public domain by age.

  27. Simon Hartwell says:

    I have written a scene were the kids are teasing Mel, with the lyrics to a song as follows:
    ‘Mel, you are looking particularly lovely this morning, your hair always looks nice without even trying.’
    The Lyrics – from Just the way you are: – Her hair, her hair falls perfectly without her trying

    Bluey asked Vicky if she wanted jam for her toast; to which she replied, ‘There is nothing I want to add, I like it just this way,’ totally straight faced.
    The Lyrics – from Just the way you are: – There’s not a thing that I would change and Just the way you are

    Quentin was quiet at first but remembering his conversation with Unwin about teasing and playful banter, decided to join in.
    ‘Your laugh is so sexy, I could kiss you,’ he said to Vicky, grinning, eyes shining.

    The Lyrics – from Just the way you are Her lips, her lips, I could kiss them all day if she’d let me. Her laugh, her laugh she hates but I think it’s so sexy.

    Ideally I would have used the actual lyrics but being away of the copyright rules inparticular around lyrics I had to adjust. The question is – have I adjusted enough or should I just skip the conversation all together?

    In another conversation the night before –
    ‘Clive do you want the toothpaste?’ called Quentin.
    ‘You know I want it,’ Clive had called back.
    ‘I know you know I know you want it.’
    ‘I know he knows you know he knows he wants it,’ called out Vicky, followed by a peel of laughter

    The Lyrics, I know YOU want it.

    Again, it does link back to the song, which Mel forbade during a karoke sing a long, so the kids are teasing her.

    Allowed? Not Allowed? Grey area so best avoid?

    I appreciate you are probably being bombarded with such emails, so, if you can reply, great, if not, totally understand.
    regards
    Simon

    1. Simon Hartwell says:

      Requested this post be removed as it possibly breaches copyright, by asking, does it breach copyright. As for the text, I removed it from the book.

    2. Scott McCormick says:

      You’re not actually quoting lyrics in those examples, so you *should* be ok.

  28. Nick Suszko says:

    Okay Mr. Don’t-Use-Lyrics-In-Books, what about the Star Spangled Banner? It was written as a poem and then set to music years later. It’s America’s national anthem by an act of Congress. It’s sung before oodles of sporting events. It’s got to be public domain. Is it?

    1. BookBaby BookBaby says:

      Go to PD Info and look it up (then let us know).

  29. Scott, I just have to say not only was this informative, you actually got me to snort while reading this (no, snort as in a laugh in order to keep my coffee from spewing forth across my keyboard… not the piggy thing that incites derision).

    Thanks.

  30. Bob Arnold says:

    But, if the book is non-fiction/philosophy (not a story) you seem to leave room that the lyric can be considered fair use. Would that only apply if you were discussing its meaning, etc., or would it apply to using it to intro a chapter (with the same theme as the lyric)?

    1. BookBaby BookBaby says:

      It has more to do with the intent of the book, I believe. If the book is a critical look at music or poetry, or perhaps even a study of a decade from a social perspective, that would likely fall under fair use. If you’re writing a biography or a memoir, and a song has meaning to you or the subject of the book, quoting lyrics wouldn’t fall into fair use, even though it’s a work of nonfiction.

  31. Suppose one of my characters is singing a popular lyric, and the one or two lines I use are lines I made up–but it turns out even one of those lines IS in someone’s lyric–I just happen to get 4 to 6 words that someone else used. How much trouble am I in?
    Do I have to do an Internet search for every phrase of something I created to be sure some lyricist hasn’t copyrighted it?

    1. Scott McCormick says:

      If I understand your question correctly, then answer is you should be ok. But I’m not a lawyer and it may depend on what the line is you’ve accidentally quoted. If it’s a common expression, you should be fine. But if you’re saying “Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to Blackberry Fields,” then no.

      But you’ve given me an idea: we should all write tons of song lyrics and then go out and sue everyone who accidentally quotes them!

  32. Sarah Fisher says:

    I wanted to quote 4 words from a 60s song and reference the singer/writer, so I wrote to the publishing company (in another country) and after several weeks, they said it would be $78 (approximate currency exchange rate). So I found the exact phrase in a public domain book and left out the reference to the singer. (I really wanted to pay homage to him because I have enjoyed that song for 50 years, but not for $78)

  33. Thomas says:

    “Wow” and you can quote me on that.

    Seems my thinking was exactly bass ackwards. I’m writing what would best be described as my memoirs. Through a series of interesting coincidences, and quite by accident, I began ‘escorting’ wealthy woman from some of the high-net-worth areas of Southern California.

    Original, I thought to title the book; “Not Just a Gigolo” my thinking that by placing the word ‘Not’ before Mr. Caesars songs title, (now controlled by ASCAP) I would be out of the legal woods so to speak. Then, and because of the legal issues I was sure would crop up, I chickened out and changed the title to… something else

    Later in the book I was going to use a single line from the song “There will come a day, when youth will pass away” to describe the chapter (I’m 61 now) and thought I could ‘get away’ with that.

    Am I really completely backwards here?

    1. Scott McCormick says:

      You can use the title, but not the lyric.

  34. Maria Murad says:

    Can you comment on lines from movies — e.g., “What we have here is a problem in communication,” “you just keep thinkin’ (Butch) it’s what you do best” “We have the stars (Jerry), let’s not ask for the moon”

    I have a character who is obsessed with Robert Redford movies and tends to think in quotes from them.

    Thanks!

  35. Valerie Ann Miles says:

    Prior to writing my fiction novel, I researched this very issue of using lyrics to a song in a written work. One very respected author advised that a writer can use less than 15 words, lyrics, from a song without the threat of penalty, and that anything over 15 words could land you in court. I attempted to contact several publishers of songs I wished to use in my novel two to three times to no avail, and only one responded by saying the minimum for usage was $300. I think it was Sony who replied to my request.

  36. William Ried says:

    Fair use under U.S. Copyright law is judged upon consideration of four factors: 1) the nature of copyrighted work, with a published work entitled to less protection than a unpublished work; 2) the amount and substantiality of portion used in relation to the whole copyrighted work; 3) the effect of the use on the value or potential value of the copyrighted work; and 4) the purpose and character of the use. In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, the Supreme Court held that fair use depended mostly on whether the second work “transformed” the copyrighted work by adding something new with a further purpose or different character, instead of simply superseding the original. That case found 2 Live Crew’s rap version of Roy Orbisson’s “Oh Pretty Woman” to be fair use, even though the case involved one song borrowing from another.

    There is no provision in the statute or the case law that fair use cannot be found when song lyrics are quoted in a novel. The case will instead turn on its facts, analysis of the elements above, and particularly whether the author transforms the lyrics into something new.

    If your advice really means you shouldn’t copy lyrics because this might draw on objection or land you in court, I might agree. But I disagree with your categorical statement that using song lyrics in a book cannot be fair use.

  37. Peter Scott says:

    What if the writing appears only on a web page, like a blog? How do these sites that publish lyrics to every known song not get sued out of existence?

    Also, because I like thinking perversely, what about a song whose lyrics are taken from a free source? Say my characters are singing lustily, as English people are known to do, “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green?” Those lyrics are from a poem written by William Blake in 1810 and arranged to music by Wiiliam Parry in 1916. Do I have a copyright problem if I leave the lyrics as is but instead say they were singing along to the 1973 recording by Emerson Lake and Palmer?

  38. Rick Long says:

    Great article, thanks. I published a book with the phrase ‘hang on loosely but don’t let go’ which my father said often while I was growing up around horses. The words later appeared in a famous rock and roll song long after. Is a phrase such as this common enough to avoid legal issues?

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