How to legally quote song lyrics in your book

Legally quote song lyrics

Authors have been quoting song lyrics in their books for eons, but if you plan to quote lyrics written after 1925, be prepared to do some research — and get out your checkbook — long before releasing your book.

This post was updated May 2021.

When a music artist records a song previously released by another artist, that’s called a cover. The current artist is “covering” the other artist’s song. A music artist does not need permission to record and release a previously recorded song, but he/she does need to license the song and pay royalties for every copy made. Note that’s every copy “made,” not “sold.” So if my band covers “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams, and I’m making 1,000 CDs (initially, of course, ’cause we’re gonna blow up and sell 100,000), I’ve got to pay 9.1¢ per CD copy made that includes the song. So that’s $91 paid to the copyright owner – typically through the company that is publishing the music. When my album does blow up, and and I need to reorder 100,000 copies, that’ll put $9,100 in Pharell’s pocket (or at least in the publishing company’s coffers). If I only sell 25 copies of the initial pressing, I still need to pay for the right to include the recording on the other 975 copies sitting in my mom’s basement.

Now that’s all well and good, but it does NOT give me permission to reprint the song’s lyrics in my liner notes. For that, I need permission from the copyright owner, and there’s no guarantee I’ll get it, and certainly no guarantee the process of soliciting approval will be quick.

This is why, as you may have noticed, the lyrics to cover songs are very often not included in an album’s liner notes, even though all the artist’s original song lyrics are. Technically, as a matter of fact, the artist needs to get permission from him/herself to print the lyrics on his/her album. Seriously. Anything already published is protected by copyright, and that means you need to seek permission to republish.

Which brings us to your book.

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

  • Flat-out deny you the right to quote the lyrics.
  • Grant you permission, set the terms, and ask you to pay whatever fee they’d like.
  • Not respond to your inquiry and leave you wondering why songwriters are so damned difficult.

Now, if you are self-publishing a book, you may think you can just get away with sticking your favorite song lyrics in your novel and no one will be the wiser. And you may be right. BUT, if you do catch the attention of the content owner (songwriter, publisher) because you wrote a hell of a good book and are a best-selling author, or because Sir Paul McCartney just happened upon it to find his lyrics to “Blackbird” included sans permission, or because music publishers are notoriously aggressive when it comes to policing the content they have the rights to, you will be in violation of the law and may be forced to pay a fine, destroy all the unsold copies of your book, and generally land yourself in a lousy situation.

Which is why the first bit of advice you might find when searching for answers to this question is a simple, “Don’t quote song lyrics in your book.” Perhaps you can write something yourself and have it suffice as your mood-setter/radio hit. Or reference the song but not the actual lyrics. You can print a song’s title – there’s no law against that – though you might not want to use a song title as your book’s title as you can run afoul of trademark law.

But of course, if you’re reading this, it’s probably because you really want to reprint the lyrics to a specific song for a specific reason. After all, it’s been done before… there has to be a way to get permission.

There is, and here’s how.

First, you need to track down the publisher of the song. Actually, let’s take one step back. In the United States, all works published before 1925 are in the public domain, which means you are free to quote them without having to get permission. You can learn more by reading the US Copyright Office’s “Duration of Copyright.”

Be careful, though, as many classic songs presumed to be in the public domain are, in fact, copyrighted, so double-check your sources before deciding a track is public domain. Hell, not long ago, even quoting “Happy Birthday To You” could have landed you in trouble. PD Info Online is an excellent starting point if you’re looking to determine if a song is in the public domain. In addition, a simple Google search with “written by” and “published” or “copyright date” alongside the song title often presents information related to the song’s initial copyright date. This is by no means an exhaustive method for determining public domain, but it can be helpful.

To find the publisher, you can use the same search criteria or seek out sheet music, which should list the copyright and publisher information. Then go to the publisher’s website and search for information related to licensing and permissions. The Music Publishers Association has a directory of music publishers, and you can learn more about music publishers at ASCAP’s website. Hal Leonard is the world’s largest music publisher, and its website gives you a pretty good idea of how the process works if you’re seeking permission. Easy Song Licensing is another resource that can help you track down the permissions you’re looking for.

But beware, it may not be as simple as sending an email and filling out a form. And, even if you land a publishing deal, you may still be on the hook to secure the necessary permissions yourself.

This post has provoked so many comments and questions, we wrote another to answer them. Check out “Lyrics In Books: Your Questions Answered.”


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  1. 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.

    • 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. 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.

    • 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.

      • What about a brief phrase from a famous song? I use the phrase “High-ho, High ho, it’s off to work we go” in my novel. It’s perfect for a particular scene I wrote. The actual lyric from the song is “High-ho, High ho, it’s home from work we go.”

  3. 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.

    • I received permission from the writer and performer of a song for my book, Magnolia Road. The song was important to the book. The writer asked me to send him a copy of the lyrics I planned to use. He approved the lyrics and asked me to send him a copy of the book, when it was published, which I did.

      Then I tried getting permission to use another song’s lyrics for another book and never got a reply. I found that going through a company, that performs that service for you, is just cost prohibitive.
      It’s better to work around using the lyrics to a song, in most cases.

      • I read your reply from book baby and hv decided that my book will NEVER be published. Makes me sorta sad. I had a complete plot running thru my head for three years. Playing like a movie. Wrote over 60+thousand words already and thought to myself, maybe I should do some research. Well, I still have two chapters left and now I think I should just throw the whole thing away. A waste of two years of my life. I wish that I’d known what I know now… To give some insight, I’ve used approximately thirteen song lyrics from as many artist trying to recreate an old classic by Stephen king called “Christine”. Don’t know if you’ve ever read or seen the movie but, I thought it would be a good book/movie to continue…I guess not.. thanks for your comment. I know now to just start something else.

        • Hello J. Anthony,
          Whether you are publishing as an eBook, print book, or both, what do you think of including only titles to the songs, and a footnote/endnote/link to the song lyrics online? Or maybe to your website so that if links change, your just need to update your website to let readers get to the lyrics with one click and a redirect or two taps? That way your 60k words and next couple chapters are all good and yet you sidestep the inclusion issue by just having a reference?
          What do you think?
          Best wishes, whatever you do with the story.

          • Publishing on a free site is still a violation of copyright if done without permission. Doesn’t matter if you pay to publish or get paid to publish — by publishing anything you must play by copyright rules.

    • Have heard that one way you can cover yourself would be to give credit if you are going to use or reference some portion of a song’s lyric. Example: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. * from “Me and Bobby McGee” written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.

      • Just giving credit is not enough. As this article points out, you need the express written permission from the copyright holder to quote lyrics in your book or you’re in violation of copyright law.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

    • Johnny Don’t! The mechanical license fees Harry Fox imposes are actually determined by the Copyright Royalty Board — a division of the U.S. Copyright Office. HFA doesn’t set statutory rates. I deal with HFA on a regular basis, and have never encountered any difficulties with them. They are efficient, and their Songfile is exceptionally simple to use — and mechanical license are digitally delivered normally in hours, but never more than a day.

  6. 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.

    • I suspect you could have used the lyrics, given the evidence of the period setting, and rightly argued that they were from the original.

  7. 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!

  8. 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?

    • 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’).

    • SP Jones: Yes. Music publishers are like dogs with a bone when it comes to hunting down folks who use works without permission. And depending on the use, sales, entity using the materials, etc., judgments have been anywhere from thousands to millions.

  9. 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.”

    • 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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?

    • 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.

  12. 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.

    • 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. ;)


      • I know it has been a year and a half since your comment, but a suggestion I asked about elsewhere in these comments is whether publishing as an eBook, print book, or both, what do you think of including only titles to the songs, and a footnote/endnote/link to the song lyrics online? Or maybe to your website so that if links change, your just need to update your website to let readers get to the lyrics with one click and a redirect or two taps? That way you sidestep the inclusion issue by just having a reference?
        What do you think?
        It is like the playlist notion, but possibly with shortcode links, or a song/reference number each reader could easily tap into your book’s webpage? What are your thoughts on that?

  13. 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?

    • 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”)

    • 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.

  14. 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?

  15. 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?

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

    • I disagree that Is a useless article. I am nearly finished with my first book and although i haven’t placed lyrics in the story, it was needed info for all aspiring writers. No one wants to find themselves in court over an overlooked issue. I appreciate the article and the comments .

      • I apologize for the typos on above article. I am using my phones tiny keyboard with lymphatic fingers and did not catch them before i sent

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

    Headline from:

    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.


    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.

    • Thanks NavWorks, you’ve cleared it up for me. If the characters in my work of fiction have a discussion about a line from a Pink Floyd song, that would probably be fair use. If I use that line to set the atmosphere or depict a character’s mood, that is not fair use.

      You’ve given me a lot to think about. Even when it would be permissible to lift words from a work in the public domain, it’s the lazy way out. I should rather create my own words. A scribe, after all, has to be able to describe.

    • I have used artists names, band names, lyrics to write two pieces and I’m wondering if this fall under the heading of parody. I haven’t published them yet but they are soon to begin the formatting process for self publication.

      Vinyl Tapestry

      I love the mysterious they
      Without whom we’d have no villain
      And just have to blame everything
      On ol’ freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
      Like a rollin’ stone
      That gathers no moss,
      You know James Dean? He don’t care-
      He’s a rebel without a cause
      Who’s looking for a voodoo child
      All along the watch tower,
      Until the hand of doom
      Strikes the final hour
      And that spinning wheel
      Smooshes a dead toad flat.
      ‘Cause two turntables and a microphone
      Is where it’s at.
      Merle Haggard’s back
      In the barrooms again.
      Tom T. Hall likes beer.
      Merle Like his misery and gin
      With a slice of American Pie
      On a starry, starry night
      Before the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald*
      Disappeared from our sight
      And could only then be seen
      From within the yellow submarine
      Like the bright new sun
      Of a brand new day
      And fresh cut grass
      Was turned to hay
      While that country boy
      Played on his fiddle
      And sang a song about life
      Being a funny, funny riddle.
      So I caught the last train to Clarksville
      And now I’m a believer
      ‘Cause I got you in a stranglehold
      With cat scratch fever.
      If you think that sounds disturbed
      Head on down to green river
      You will meet some people down there
      Who will stand and deliver.
      Once you have what you’ve been given
      Ride through the desert
      On a horse with no name
      Until you reach the Mississippi Queen
      And get to work out on the chain gang;
      Tied to that whippin’ post
      And singing sweet gospel hymns
      With Elvis Presley’s ghost
      Before you catch the last train
      For the west Coast.
      Then pick up sticks
      And get your kicks
      All the way to the windy city
      On Route 66.
      Then catch that big ol’ jet airliner
      All the way back to Carolina
      Where nothing could be finer
      When I meet her in the morning,
      Except maybe Georgia
      Who’s always on my mind
      Where the Devil was in a bind
      Because he was way behind
      And lookin’ for a soul to steal
      In the house of the rising sun
      That’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
      And God, I know I’m one-
      One more light among so many
      Like the coat of many colors
      My momma made for me,
      Or one more song
      In this rich tapestry.
      But now Jamie’s cryin’
      And the cradle will rock
      From the grand ol’ opry
      To Motown to Woodstock
      And all points in between
      Of our fabulous American
      Music scene….
      Except of course, Edmund Fitzgerald
      And the yellow submarine;)

      Vinyl Tapestry II

      That old Free Bird,
      Like the Dog and the Butterfly,
      Just had to try to
      Fly like an Eagle
      Before Molly Hatchet
      Cut off its Blackfoot
      When Eddy Money
      Shot a man on the Mexican border
      For a drink of cool, cool water
      At the Hotel California
      With a Witchy Woman
      Named Black Betty
      From way down in Alabam’
      Who had a child that went blind
      Hangin’ on the telephone line
      Hopin’ to request a track
      To be played by Wolfman Jack
      Before Video Killed the Radio Star.
      But Baby You can Drive My Car
      All the way to Africa
      If you don’t drown in the river
      Of my Tears for Fears
      And grind your gears
      Before the rent check clears
      Or it’ll be Bad to the Bone
      With one bourbon, one scotch and one beer
      ‘Til you get outta here
      And head out to the highway
      With eighteen big wheels a rollin’
      Movin’ On to Do it My Way
      When the moon hits your eye
      Like a big pizza pie
      When you got the munches
      Flying into Los Angeles
      Bringin’ in a couple o’ keys
      Don’t check my bags if you please
      Mr customs man
      Cause Johnny Cash’s got
      Them Folsom Prison Blues
      And Huey Lewis
      Has got the News
      So you can read all about it
      On the Cover of the Rollin’ Stone
      Because freedom’s just another word
      For nothin’ left to lose that you don’t own
      When you don’t want what you haven’t got
      Because nothing compares to you
      When you’re standing out in the purple rain
      Where doves cry
      Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars
      Because the man from Mars
      Is eating cars, bars and guitars
      And Sheena is a Punk Rocker now
      At Rock-n-Roll High School
      And she’s going to the Blitzkrieg Bop
      With a long necked goose
      Oh baby that’s what I like
      Rockin’ Around the Clock tonight
      With Chuck Berry on top
      And Johnny B.Goode
      Who lived in a cabin
      Made of earth and wood
      By the railroad track.
      He hopped a box car and didn’t look back-
      Alabama Getaway
      Then became a Fool for the City
      To see the lights on Broadway
      And took a Walk on the Wild Side
      With a girl named Lola
      Just like Coke a Cola
      And side stepped a case of Ebola
      With a trip to NOLA
      The City of New Orleans
      Singing doncha know me
      I’m your native son
      There are many like me
      But I’m The Only One
      Who’ll walk across the fire for you
      When you make me
      Do what you want me to
      But I don’t want you
      To be true…
      I just wanna make love to you
      Mama how you want me to.

  20. 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).

    • Fair Use is a much more dicey proposition than many would have you believe. There has been an increase in lawsuits RE Fair Use — with most of the judgments falling in favor of the copyright owners.

  21. 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!)

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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?

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

    • 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.

    • Musicians are asked to play free “for publicity” all the time. Now you want songwriters to give their songs away “for publicity”? If you can assume that your readers know the song, then you can assume that the songwriter already has publicity, and would rather have the money. (I am a songwriter.)

  27. 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!

  28. 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???

  29. 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.

  30. 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?

  31. 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.

    • 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.

      • Songwriters aren’t greedy. If you were to quote a whole chapter of a book you would have to get permission and pay. Proportionally, that is the same as quoting a line or verse of a song.

  32. 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

  33. 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.

    Could you reply to my email ( I do not blog, or tweet.

  34. 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.

  35. 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!

    • This is the question I have been thinking, where a person speaks lyrics in a book, or sings along with a song. Have you found the answer to this? If you have could you let me know?! Thanks in advance!!

  36. I’ve designed a T-shirt about dogs and would like to use a slogan based on a phrase from a song. It’s not word-for-word, but it’s close enough that anyone reading it will hum the tune, it’s that well known. How close can one be to “almost quote” a lyric without getting into trouble? My “publishing” will be on a T-shirt and not in a book. Are these markets different enough? Does it matter?

  37. Can I break up the lyrics of the song so that they do not appear as a lyric. Example. The character is at a coffee shop and hears a particular song playing in the background. The first three words of the lyric is heard (written). He orders his drink and the and waits in line as the final words of the 2nd line is heard(written). He is daydreaming when he hears his name called and as he picks it up and sits down to hear the last three important words sung. Parts of 3 verses of well known song written into a paragraph.

    Can I do it?

    • This is what I’d like to know! Can I have my character refer obliquely to lyrics of a famous WWII song? Snatching a few key words here and there without directly quoting them?

      Also I wasn’t sure if it would be OK to use direct quotes if you cited the lyricist [and composer too] of the song.

  38. So basically we’re not able to tell the truth, because we can’t say “such and such wrote a poem set to music”. But obscuring the truth like that behind a wall of plutocracy is immoral. If you don’t want people to acknowledge something you’ve done, don’t ever do it. Ever. Anything else is lying.

  39. I am judging a national writing competition, with another person, in Australia. We do this every year.The entries we are judging are memoirs and will not be published in a book or online.
    A couple of the entries quote song lyrics. One of them is so good it could be second placed. We are reluctant to dismiss it. If it is placed second it will be read out at a meeting/presentation day. I know that this is regarded as being published, but it will be a small group who hears it.

    Has anyone any ideas about this? We were going to advise in our judges’ report not to use song lyrics, and this puts us in a bind.
    I would appreciate any advice.

  40. does anyone know if i were to put Eyes Wide OPen by M’Girl in my book, would it be copywritting even if i state the name of the song and say who its by?

  41. In my book, my character has the winter blues but she is funny. Can I use altered lyrics from a Beatles song “Help” I need some salad…etc..etc?

  42. I am self-publishing a memoir that will not be sold, it is only for my family. I quote various song lyrics. I am wondering if this would fit the non-profit, educational definition of fair use, since there will be no profit and its only purpose is to educate my family about my life. does anyone know if this would be acceptable?

  43. I have just completed a novel where one of my characters is watching “The Sound of Music” on television. He is mouthing the words to “My Favorite Things” as they bring back a significant memory for him.
    I realise now that I can’t use the actual lyrics. But can I drop in a word or two as he silently mouths them?…”roses…..kittens…” (something like that)?

  44. One of my characters has a rose of the ‘Hot Chocolate’ variety, and I have said that she is quietly humming ‘You Sexy Thing’ to the rose as she tends to it. I reckon anyone who knows the group will know the lyrics, and if they don’t well it doesn’t really matter.

  45. I haven’t read the whole article yet but the subject made me wonder about the first line in an old hymn I have in a story I have published on I am assuming the same rules apply. Would I have to reference a hymnal?

  46. In my book, MURDER IN THE PAST TENSE, I have a summer stock company putting on a musical comedy. Originally, I pictured them performing CAROUSEL by Rogers and Hammerstein, but there were obvious difficulties with copyright. Instead, I found an O Henry short story that was in the public domain, THE LAST LEAF, and made up a musical around that story. It was actually lots of fun making up lyrics for this show!

  47. The article basically has it right… except for the “Happy Birthday” part. A 2015 decision slapped Warner/Chappell a kick in the patootie with respect to ownership of the song. A lawsuit challenging their ownership (it’s a complicated history) by a documentary filmmaker is what finally got the song out of Warner’s clutches. Last year Warner had to fork over $14million to settle the suit.

  48. Re: “Happy Birthday to You,” feel free to quote it with impunity. A federal judge declared it in the public domain in 2015.

    Second, I notice you don’t mention the fact that song copyright owners are likely to demand a fee, and that said fees can be horrendous. The same goes for other copyrighted material, of course, but ASCAP and BMI, especially the former, are notorious for demanding a use fee equal to a performance fee whether you quote the entire song or not.

    We have a book in our catalog that has the theme of classic rock saving the universe. The only “content” we used was the song titles as the chapter headers, with the original band or singer cited. Titles can’t be copyrighted, and I’d have to check to confirm individual ones are subject to trademark if they aren’t used to identify an entity. I suspect we’ll find out if the book ever achieves the readership it deserves. :-)

  49. I use a major portion of Don McLean’s “AmericanPie” in “The Ties That Bind,” the first book of my series. Had I known the hassle to get lyrics permission ahead of time, I might have trashed the notion altogether. However, by the time the book was finished, the lyrics became integral to the story, which is set in the music business.

    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.

    For the record, no pun intended, a contemporary of mine went through Hal Leonard seeking the first 8 words of Elton John’s “Your Song” for her book. She was inexplicably denied. I don’t know why. They said they were not given a reason – which leads me to believe Bernie Taupin denied it himself. I found that odd for reasons I won’t get into (soap box issue about the whole pirating topic). So she had to do something else.

    Because my series is musical in nature, I bit the bullet for book one. HOWEVER, for those considering doing the same, keep in mind you’ll meet similar and possibly more complicated obstacles if you intend to offer an audiobook version of your work. As it is, I have to decide whether or not to even try to get the permission to include the original Don McLean version in an audiobook, and whether I should pursue it at all. Tough position to be in, and one I’d have preferred to avoid.

    I’d have liked to include some song lyrics in book three, but I have decided against it for both these reasons. As others have suggested, I have written my own song lyrics where possible. When my character covers “Maybe I’m Amazed,” I’m using the title and some fancy footwork basically to avoid using the lyrics. That’s unfortunate, because it’s a really cool scene and I’d have liked to use them.

    • Thank you for your reply. Maybe there is some hope although, slim to non. I will probably never get this book published I’m writting. For one, I need permission to use the characters I picked to write about and secondly, my use of over thirteen different song lyrics, mostly all chorus, would probably delay it ever being published. I wonder how Mr. King did it and did it so fast. I WROTE a continuation of the movie “Christine” written by King and screenwritten by John Carpenter. I stuck close to John’s interpretation of the movie tho to “continue” my story. I now see why King himself wouldn’t revisit this story or even make a sequel as I did… the music! What’s the purpose in writing about a car that communicates with music when you can’t get permission to use most of the lyrics you use without emptying your savings to do so. Boy did I pick a humdinger to write. I guess that happens when you have no direction in writing and only talent.

  50. My MC uses the phrase “Breathe in, breathe out, move on,” as a mantra when she is stressed. The words are both the title and the first line of the chorus from the Jimmy Buffett song.
    If I’m understanding this correctly, if I used the phrase as a title I’m okay, but if I use it as a line from the lyrics I’d have to pay? The first time she uses the phrase, I mention that it’s the song Jimmy Buffett wrote after Hurricane Katrina. She uses the phrase as a mantra several times in the book, and another character picks it up from her in book 2 of the series.
    In such a case where title and lyrics are the same, how is it determined which is being used?
    My MC uses song and movie quotes. Single lines from Gone With The Wind, and Casablanca for example. Do I need to get permission for those as well? The quotes are integral to her character, and the Jimmy Buffett quote especially as a reminder to deal with what she can and let go of what she can’t.

    • Hi, Warjna. The fact that so many of us find lines from songs or movies appropriate to describe our own moods is because some other writer found a way to express those emotions in their own words. There’s no reason why you can’t do the same. You’re talking about taking a deep breath, letting it out, and going forward. Is Jimmy Buffett the only person who can come up with a simple way to put that mantra into words? The answer is no. Your own words can convey that just as eloquently. One man’s opinion.

  51. Thanks for sharing this. I want to ask about whether I need to be concered with just a single line of lyrics that I included, but lucky me, I haven’t sent it to printing yet, so it’s just easier to take it out. Many thanks!

  52. I’m just mentioning the name of the song that set my mood at the time in the story. I’m listing the name of the song and the name of the person singing the song. Is this alright to do without contacting asking for permission?

  53. I went to the PD site and found a couple of songs which I am using to start a couple of chapters. I have also used some hymns. I give credit for the author of the lyrics. I was going to.use a modern song but decided to write my own poetry instead. I do reference a couple of popular songs by title and one artist. When I discovered it would cost a bundle for the one song I really wanted to use and how I wouldn’t get permission for another one, I decided writing my own was preferable.

  54. Two questions:
    1. What about one line of lyric is used and then the protagonist answers back in commentary on the line. Would that be a fair use exception.

    2. I don’t mind paying for use. If I use self publishing in an ebook which isn’t published in advance, can the royalty be paid as books are sold.?

  55. Interesting article. First of all when I RECORDED a cover song, which happened to be a huge hit, I had to chase the publisher down: they didn’t even want to be bothered with me. When I finally nailed them to the wall they said let us know if you sell over 50,000 copies. So it wasn’t about copies made, it wasn’t even about copies SOLD, unless it sold a lot. That was a publisher out of France. Another song I copied I also tried to write to the publisher and never heard back. I ended up giving a copy of my cd which is for sale thru everyone, to the actual artist, and he thanked me.. couldn’t care less about getting any money. This could be because I am an artist circa 2018 where we don’t make money anymore — everything is on youtube (or worse, streamed), so there is no money to make unless it’s mega and very few are.. even mega isn’t mega anymore thanks to the death of the music industry.
    As far as books go, this was the same, I quoted a song, and an artist, and he read the book and no one has ever bothered me about getting permission. It was an ebook and I suppose when it goes into print THIS ARTICLE should be of use to me.. but I think you are completely overstating the importance of anyone caring. Also people are too dysfunctional these days to even answer their mail never mind go chasing anything !

  56. I’m just curious to know if they ever let you print the lyrics for free, with just an acknowledgement/footnote on that page or at the beginning of the book?
    If not, what is the minimum fee, if there is such a thing? One publisher I’m dealing with wants to see a copy of the pages in which the lyrics are used. It’s a campfire scene in a Christian novel. Any related experience on this out there?

  57. I quoted three lyrics, all with permission, in a non-fiction book about a hike (North Country Cache). The fees varied wildly. One let me use the entire song for $40. One let me use two lines for a copy of the book. Sony charged me $250 for one line. It wasn’t too difficult once I tracked down who to contact.

  58. I’ve unknowingly quoted song lyrics in the back of my three self-published fiction books. Ouch. The only difference is they are under the Author’s notes as songs that inspired me. With the proper acknowledgments etc… IS there anything with that over being used as part of the fiction?????

    “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.”

  59. I have been struggling with this question for some time. The way I see it, the over-litigiousness of U.S. society in recent decades, the contentiousness around music and film pirating and difficulty protecting real copyrights of actual music, and the rise in self-publishing (and let’s say, particularly fan-fiction with its way of seriously upsetting copyright owners) have made this issue a complete mess.

    This is a good article and the comments are instructive, too, even though it doesn’t dig into fair use (maybe because that is more and more challenged and abused today.) My work is somewhere between fiction / memoir and poetry (which has its own weird rules and grey areas) with a framework that it is a work of criticism. I feel strongly that it falls under fair use. And the way I interpret what I’ve read about fair use these days is that you might be able to use it unless your book makes a certain amount of money or profile at which time it may become interesting to copyright owners to pull some of that profit back or feel the need to assert ownership. That small indie published books that sell a few thousand copies may not be worth their time. This is not the same as some noble cause to protect artists, more like it attacks indie writers who have a legitimate moral write to speak and write on popular culture and its influences on our lives real and fictional. If I’ve spent thousands on a band I love, and I feel inspired to quote a few lines in a piece of art, I should be able to do that freely (in my opinion). But these things come down to lawyers and agents who profit and whose bread and butter this is.

    My book has one poem that quotes a few song verses (clearly crediting the copyright owner) and will have a full bibliography, too. I guess I could write around those lines if disallowed but I intend to publish it as-is and take my chances. My works speaks at length about the influence and context of this music in my life and that of my characters and is being critiqued and looked at from an analytical distance. At the same time, I respect the owners and creators of the music and I worry about the issue as a whole.

    I think the copyright issues (and the global complexity as no one is working in just one country anymore) are a morass and open to be exploited on both sides. And are also prone to be challenged on both sides, as a lot of law is based on what is exactly in the record or what might set a new precedent if it goes that far.

    I see a serious problem if we are just scared off and basically feel handcuffed about talking about music or film. If she turned on the radio to a certain song (as some of you have mentioned) or is name after someone that should be fine (in my view) and not the providence of wealthy and powerful filmmakers and publishers only.

  60. What if two characters are having a conversation and one says a throw away line but the other makes a music reference with it? Something like ‘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?’ (Josie by Blink 182 lyrics are “Yea my girfriend takes me home when I’m too drink to drive and she doesn’t get all jealous when I hang out with the guys”
    I ask because I constantly talk like this when I talk with friends so I thought I could use it in a story?

  61. Hi

    Thanks for info so far, baffling but understandable to a point. My question is this. In my book, i have a very clever macaw, and he bursts into song at random, just needing a word or something to set him off. So – and i know I’m reaching here – but is it allowed because he’s an animal? Not human?

    • Nice try… but no, that doesn’t change the fact that you are quoting the lyrics in your work. Your musical macaw needs to acquire the rights like everyone else.

  62. When you are writing a book that documents a true story, is it okay to quote lines from various published newspaper articles on the story particulars?

  63. I wanted to use one or 2 lines from a song at the very beginning…before the book starts, after the acknowledgments page, which would include a credit to the artist, writers, etc. Do I still need permission for that??

  64. Great article, thank you. What if you quote a song title that is also included among the lyrics of that same song?

    For example, I have a character who says: “Supposedly there are 50 ways to leave your lover.”

    My argument for not obtaining permission would be: I am quoting a title.

    But the copyright owner might say: You are quoting from the song. (And he might have a case, as I am not formatting the title as a title, which would be: “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”–using caps and quote marks.)

    Who is right? And more importantly, how likely would it be that the copyright owner would sue me if I did publish the quoted sentence? (I am about to self-publish) Thank you!!

    • You’re OK if it’s the title (most titles appear in the lyric somewhere). I had to check this myself, when I referred to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ in my novel ‘Retributions’.

      In another book, the following appeared, referencing the Dusty Springfield record that had been playing on the stereo :

      ‘As Osborne Newton realised what was happening, he felt his bladder let go. There followed a sharp report.
      Newton knew nothing more of that afternoon. He would never know anything ever again as a trickle of blood and brain tissue began to dribble down the off white wallpaper behind the sofa.

      Marco pocketed the gun, as from the slim speakers, the final repeated refrain of ‘I Only Want To Be With You’ faded out.

      He smiled wryly as the song’s last pleading line was repeated over and over. It was as if the dead man was singing it to him in forlorn hope. Had this pathetic little pornographer really believed that he, too, was gay? ‘

      This usage was fine because the line was the title of the song. Titles are considered as ‘public domain’ as the title of a book, record, song etc. it effectively its advertisement.

  65. Hi, I’ve just found this article, and it clarified me a lot of things… I will remove all the lyrics and just quote the titles… but, just one more question: would it be legal to create, say, a Spotify playlist with the songs and print a QR code inside the book to get you there?

  66. I’ve found a code structure in the English language which can reveal events people experience by decoding their last names. So if I use my decoding method (Fate Stack method), I can decode the last names of musicians in the same music band lineup during the same timeframe. The decode to Fate Stacks containing musicians last names resolves into an annotated version of lyrics to a notable song by that band every time; thereby, unveiling a stored description of the musicians’ destiny. The annotated version of the lyrics abbreviates the lyrics in a short, paraphrase like fashion. To show evidence to a reader (of a book I’d make profit on) I’d like to reprint the lyrics that match up to the Fate Stack decodes. My book will be close to 1000 pages, with multiple code methods besides Fate Stacks. Musician’s lyrics only cover about a few pages of my book, so I don’t rely on them for sales; but, instead, rely on them to educate.

    For instance, decoding the band members’ last names belonging to the group Peter, Paul & Mary resolves into a decode annotating lyrics to their song “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

    Meaning: The tale is told via an artistic piece. The sailor travels.
    Song lyrics: “Together they” [YE] “would travel” [ROVES] “on a boat” [TAR] “with billowed sail.”

    I’d like to quote song lyrics to have discourse with evidence for my study. Some entries require me to use longer lyrical passages. I don’t see how this could harm the musical property in any way; in fact, it seems like free advertising for them.

    I have so many decodes by so many bands that there’d be no way I could write to all of these publishers and wait on their responses and then pay, especially if I don’t have to.

    Currently, as the book is written, I point readers to online sites like, etc. and just summarize what the lyrics are about (not optimal). And how are all of these lyric sites not infringing on copyrights anyhow?

  67. Wow. Took ages to reach the bottom after so many comments. Very interested in this. I wrote almost all the lyrics for songs sung by a character I am writing about. Heaps of them. She is not the main character but she is an important one and the songs she sings are inadvertently prophetic, set a scene, fit the mood, speak volumes about her character and speak of things many think she is too young and inexperienced to know about. When I was researching the instrument she plays the title of a song came up. I researched the title and found the words. There is no music but they are a poem quoted from an old fairy story about someone who plays this instrument. (I unfortunately didn’t write it and once I had read them couldn’t go back to ignorance and invent the lyrics by accident.) They were perfection for a couple of scenes. Only 93 words. I then researched the name of the book they came from. A collection of old stories had been collected into a book in a series published in 1931. (British) The books can be downloaded and read free of charge. The one story is ancient and would predate 1926. Don’t know if the author of the book published in 1931 had to pay royalties on this Russian tale from antiquity. My book is unpublished and I am waiting for someone to tell me I can’t include the one song which is named in the footnote by title of book, author, year published and the title of the story it came from. I wasn’t sure if I had done all the research I needed to. I was quite willing to write letters, ask permission. But it was from such an old source I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t. Love to read more on this topic. I am blessed to be able to write verse and can guarantee originality for the other lyrics. Sometimes someone else’s is the perfect one and I sympathize to find out I am not alone and others have similar dilemmas.

  68. I would like to use Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away as a series title for the collection of my books. I see this line all over the net. It’s originally a lyric from a Neil Young song but was subsequently used in a Def Leppard song and closing out Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. Would my use of it be considered Fair Use?

  69. Wow, I didn’t see my question. Can anyone let me know if you can write your own lyrics to an existing song and use them in your book without getting in trouble? And if this is okay, does every word need to be different? Is there any leeway in using a few of the lyrics? I’m guessing not, but since I’m working on a project for my MFA, I’m curious.

  70. I’m writing a memoir. I’m quoting the lyrics of a song my late husband wrote. The song was never recorded, therefore, is it even copyrighted if he wrote it, but never recorded it?

  71. I’m writing my first romance novel I like a certain song I would like the guy to sing it to his love towards the end. It’s a famous singer from the sixties and seventies. Is this a good idea.

  72. Can I just make an abstract reference to a song and have no trouble with copyright?
    For instance, let’s say I would like to have a character that loved “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and I would like the reader to get that, but I don’t wanna mention the song’s title and will not quote any verse. May I write something like “He/She absolutely loved a song about strawberries and reality” ?? Thanks

  73. Question, I’ve been writing a book on and off for almost 5 years now and I wrote my own lyrics for a love song but it became an actual song in 2017 from two very high profile artist. How does that work when dealing with copyright laws and publishers when it’s not the same lyrics but very similar to what I wrote back in 2015?

    • That depends on how close to the popular lyrics yours is. If the popular song was released before you copyrighted your own, you’re not going to be able to prove you wrote your own lyric. If yours was copyrighted (or published) years before, you’ll have no problem proving ownership of your lyric.

  74. I self-published through KDP Publishing my first poetry chapbook last month. Two of my pages in between poems quote P!NK songs where I not only credited her on the page, but I properly cited the works on a citation page at the end. I apologize if this has been addressed as I didn’t have time at work to skim all the questions and responses. I’m guessing from what I did read, however, that a citation page still isn’t enough?

  75. What if you modify the lyrics so that it’s a completely new song? Kind of like how some people make new versions of old songs, but it’s very loosely based on that song and they change most of the words/meanings?

  76. How about using a phrase as a chapter title with no reference as to where it came from and perhaps changing a word or two?
    My example here uses the same amount of words but is not the phrase :-)
    If for Example the original line is “You didn’t have a gun for me” and I changed it to “You didn’t have to run for me”
    seemingly a combination of words that anyone could by mere chance come up.

  77. 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 libelous statements!

  78. Very interesting blog. A question no one has asked so far: If lyrics are so heavily copyrighted, how can pop up the lyrics to any song ever written when you do a search like, “elton john rocket man”..? That will instantly display the full lyrics. So will 50 other websites, and many of those are no doubt illicit, but google..? Are they not actually publishing anything in returning search results? I think they are.

  79. Sorry if someone asked this and I missed it.

    Song titles aren’t under copyright. What if the song title is also the chorus of the song?
    Context (time travel story). Wanted to mention the Cher song: If Could Turn Back Time
    If a character in a scene hears those words alone, “If I Could Turn Back time” playing from a speaker, its both title and lyrics. So, am I still in an actionable position?

  80. Hi there – very interesting blog!

    My example is using some key words from songs but jumbled up to show confusion. In most cases, the song is obvious but there is no quotation of complete lyrics. The song title and artist are alluded to but I don’t know whether this violates copyright as it is just individual words – mostly the nouns, verbs and adjectives only – in different order to the song lyrics and with all the pronouns etc excluded.

    Any thoughts on this?



  81. Thank you for this blog. My question is similar to David M’s. Would misquoted lyrics of an easily identifiable song require permission? I would appreciate your thoughts.

  82. Easy work around. Don’t quote the song directly. Change some words up and write as a part of normal text instead of having a character actually speak or sing the words. This is completely legal to do.

  83. I guess, even after all this, I’m not a hundred percent clear about whether it’s okay to use them in a memoir or non-fictional account… especially when some of the memoir is essentially “music criticism” in nature? I’m giving a totally accurate description of situations that are literally dealing with songwriting…

  84. I appreciate all the comments. Disappointed, but I will never use songs in my publications either and I am a singer.

  85. What I’ve done is write “soundalikes” — lyrics that are similar to the original, but different enough so it doesn’t violate any copyrights. So, for example, “Night and Day” became “By Day, By Night,”, “Says My Heart” turned into “My Heart is Ready for Romance,” etc.

    What seems odd to me is that hardly anyone cares these old songs or even remembers them


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