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.”
Lyrics In Books: Your Questions Answered
How To Confound And Frustrate Readers
The Drama Is In The Details (the humor, horror, and suspense are too)
Let your dialogue do the talking
How to fail as a writer
A Library for Self-Publishing Success: Must-read Books for the Indie Author