Lyrics In Books: Your Questions Answered

lyrics in books

Can I use song lyrics in my book? 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 printing song lyrics in books to answer all of 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.

Can authors 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. But it may cost you 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 to legally quote song lyrics in your book.

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

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

Hal Leonard is another popular publisher.

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

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

You can also search the big performance-rights organizations.

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

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

Easy Song Licensing can also help.

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

So that’s it?

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

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

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

Can’t I just plead fair use?

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

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

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

Here is more information regarding fair use.

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


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


What if I only quote a couple of words?

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

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

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

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

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

You should write a new character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if the song is licensed through Creative Commons?

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

Can I include a playlist?

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

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

Yes. That is using a song title.

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

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

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

Not without a clearance, you’re not.

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

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

What if I’m quoting a hymn?

Many hymns are copyrighted. You can check here.

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

The music industry has better lawyers.

What about movies? Can I quote movies?

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

Can I quote names from songs or movies?


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

I think you know the legal answers to these questions.

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

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

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

Yes. It does happen. Tom Newton, an author who commented on our last article, said: “I used some lyrics from ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek’ by Irving Berlin … I had to find the company that owns the rights — send them the page which quoted the lyrics [as well as] the preceding and following pages. I was granted the worldwide rights for 5,000 units. It cost $150 and I had to send them a copy of the book. It was a relatively painless experience and took about ten days.”

Thanks, Scott.

You too. Good chat.

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  1. Thank you Scott, what valuable information. I have been wondering about bible quotes? I am guessing quotes from the King James Versions is public domain, but the more I look into bible quotes, I come across 20 or more versions, using different words (modern words)

    Would it be a good guess, I could not use the modern versions without permission?


  2. It gets ridiculous. John walked into the room. “How are you feeling better today.? Mary said, in the words of James Brown, I feel good,: I feel good is a line in I Feel Good by James Brown.

  3. I particularly loved the reminder to read extensively across different genres and styles. It has not only expanded my horizons but also helped me understand the nuances of storytelling and character development. Your emphasis on seeking feedback and being open to constructive criticism has given me the courage to share my work with others and grow as a writer.

  4. Emotional appeal: Lyrics that tap into the listener’s emotions can help to create a connection and make the song more relatable. This could be achieved through the use of vivid imagery, metaphor, or personal anecdotes.

    Authenticity: Lyrics that are authentic and genuine can help to establish a bond between the artist and the listener. When listeners feel like they can relate to the artist on a personal level, they are more likely to be drawn into the song.

  5. Works in a musical play need to be copyrighted like anything else. They have the power to evoke emotions, tell stories, and communicate ideas in a way that can resonate with people from all walks of life

  6. One of the reasons why lyrics are so important is that they allow artists to express their feelings and ideas in a way that is unique to them. A song’s lyrics can be deeply personal, drawing on the artist’s own experiences and emotions, or they can be more universal, speaking to shared human experiences like love, loss, and hope.? I also link on my website to a Spotify playlist that includes all these mentioned songs and artists, would this infringe on anything?

  7. My problem is, I want to include some lines from German songs of WW2. My information is that the USA took away the copyright from the writers, on the grounds that they should not be allowed to make money from anything pertaining to the Nazi era. However, nowhere can I find any concrete information about it; worse still, I find that someone (presumably in the US) has slapped his own copyright on the lyrics in 2014, despite having no right to do so, not having written them (and probably wasn’t even born when they were!) How can I find out the truth?

  8. I included some song lyrics in my first book, The Portal: Only and Ocean Apart. Only one licensing rights owner turned me down. The other four were happy to help. Artists included Elton John, Steppenwolf, Sara Brightman, and David Bowie. $300.00 to $400.00 each and I got the permissions within 3 weeks. They wanted to see what specific lyrics I planned on using and also wanted two finished copies of the book after publishing.
    My self-publisher was also helpful with this. Perhaps I got lucky, but for me it was pretty simple. Many of my readers liked the inclusion of the lyrics and identified with the scenes I matched them to. I plan on using more with my second book in the series, which is being edited now.
    Hope this helps.

  9. I am a colossal idiot. I have written ‘that one book which is in each of us.’ I have been thinking about it for maybe fifty years. It has taken four years to write, 103,000 words. It has stripped the very flesh from my soul. It is full of musical and cinematic reference as the core of the main character’s personality. My naivety allowed me to imagine permissions would be a case of common courtesy. The book is dead in the water. It’s over. What a total and utter fool I have been..

    • I think I’d need more info, but if you are asking if you can quote someone else’s song lyrics in your autobiography, then no, that would not be considered fair use.

  10. You may not know the answer to this, but I’ve been curious if the same holds true for podcasts, as I hear even major podcasters quote song lyrics all the time. With podcasts and audiobooks beginning to be available from the same sources as almost indistinguishable from each other, is one use legit and the other not? Thanks!

  11. Wow, this is really very helpful! But what about Mother Goose children’s rhymes, like “Humpty Dumpy sat on a Wall”? Are they in the public domain or also copyrighted? I’m basing a novel on “Monday’s Child – etc.” and would like to quote the entire verse – would that get me into trouble?

  12. Thank you for the sound advice. I don’t think an old song lyric would sell a book anyway. However, recording it , would tick off songwriters.

  13. Scott, I’ve been sorting through the answers to many of these questions but I haven’t seen my question yet. I’m using the lyrics of an old hymn that is in the public domain. It was my understanding that such use is acceptable, but now I’m starting to wonder. Is that safe? Thanks so much for all you do!

  14. Scott,
    what is the situation if a character is talking about a song and in describing it, simply by doing so, says something that matches the lyrics of the song? Case in point Dido’s No Freedom.

  15. I have a character trying to think of the lyrics to a song who gets them wrong. Now I’m going to add to the other character’s response, “You’ll find the real lyrics on the Internet. Otherwise, go buy the record!”

  16. This. Was. Awesome. Thanks for the laugh. And for answering the questions everyone is thinking. A major publisher approved a request to reprint an excerpt of a lovely poem in one of my clients’ books. It took completing an online form, waiting three months, sending three follow-up emails, and re-submitting the request. It’s possible, but yes, a hassle with no guarantees.

  17. I am clear about song lyrics (already started talking to BMG records and will likely avoid song lyrics for financial reasons).
    My question is what about public speeches? I would love to quote the Dalai Lama in the Nobel prize acceptance speech but I doubt I would get very far when trying to ask the Dalai Lama for permission.

  18. Getting ready to self publish my first novel…. which is split into three “books”/ sections.

    Originally, each book opened with a handful of lyrics that inspired me. After reading your excellent article… forget that. That’s way too much trouble. It’s disappointing, but not remotely worth it.

  19. Two questions. First — can an author describe the contents of a song without using any of the lyrics? I’m thinking of a song written about an old English king and based on facts from the king’s life; would I be able to recite the king’s history and refer from time to time to the song without using any lyrical lines from the song itself? Second — can I describe the song itself, such as to say “a driving rhythm guitar,” or “the incredible three-part harmonies”? If my character loved the song in question, he would very likely be called on to describe what he loves about it. So long as I never quoted lyric, my description of musical aspects of a song wouldn’t infringe on the copyright, would it? I am trying to restructure and remove lyrics I had quoted from a work-in-progress, and it would help a great deal to know what I actually CAN do to maintain the mood. Thanks in advance.

  20. Quick question, if someone’s got time to answer – would you say this is quoting lyrics to the point of copyright infringement?

    Then he started humming – he actually started humming! In a lift! I soon realised what it was. An old Frank Sinatra number, ’Strangers in the Night’. Oh hilarious! He obviously thought he was a comedian. Well, it wasn’t night and we certainly wouldn’t be sharing love before the night was through – or any other time for that matter. Sex, maybe, he was drop dead gorgeous and there was definitely something… But love was not on the table, not now, not ever.

  21. This is so useful, thank you Scott and to all those who have contributed their experiences here.
    I wish I had looked into this before I wrote my story – I’m now busily editing lyrics out and repairing the bits that depended upon them. At least I checked before I published, so that’s something.
    I do find this incredibly frustrating. My whole life has a huge soundtrack to it – there is so much music that I love and there are always some lyrics in my head or I’m singing them out loud (at home – I do sing professionally on occasion but I’m talking about everyday life). In fact, it’s so important to me that, when I’m reading a novel and songs are referenced, if I don’t know the song/artist/band (or even if I do sometimes to absorb the mood), I immediately get it on YouTube or Spotify. In this way, I have been introduced to bands and artists that I hadn’t come across before – which is great! It also helps me empathise with the MCs too. So, I will weave in the song titles even if I resent the artists for being so difficult about it – realising, of course, that it’s not necessarily the artist, songwriter, whatever, who is choosing to make it difficult – I mean, a fair few of mine are no longer with us! If I miraculously become a bestselling author and can afford it – well, I may well have a go at getting Print Licenses. In the meantime, I live in hope that there are others out there who, like me, do look the referenced music up!

    • I understand how you feel.
      Are you over it yet? Did you finish the rewrite? Did the book feel diminished by it? Did you publish eventually?
      I stuck my head in the sand thinking it would somehow all work out. I didn’t even need to spend much time researching to find out it was all an impossible dream!
      Ah well, the writing has kept me occupied these last four years with no income…. :D

  22. Just so people will know it’s not always difficult or a lost cause to obtain a Print License Agreement, I’m writing a novel and in it, I quote lyrics from the Doors, “When The Music’s Over”. Alfred Music was very easy to work with; they got back to me immediately; had me sign the License Agreement and return it to them; then they sent me the signed (by both parties) Agreement. All of that for $100.00 (plus $5.00 processing fee) I can print up to 5000 units without having to renegotiate for more and I agreed to provide them with one (1) gratis copy of any publication the composition appears in. I was quite happy with the process and now I’m hoping things will go at least half as well with Sony/ATV requesting the right to quote Lennon-McCartney’s “Revolution 1″…

  23. I wrote a short story about flowers sharing a pot. I wanted one of the flowers, a Forget-Me-Not to sing just a few of the lyrics from Beverly Bremers’ hit song, “Don’t Say You Don’t Remember,” when a bee she once knew approached. I wrote to Hal Leonard and never heard a response. That was over 4 months ago. I opted just to use the title of the song, instead of the lyrics. It would have been much better using the lyrics, but didn’t want to take a legal risk.

  24. Depressing topic. As an example, if a guy challenges another to a fight, it would be wrong to have the recipient say, “Go ahead, make my day.” Even if that’s exactly what so many of us would actually say?

    And does it make a difference if it’s fiction or non-fiction? In other words, if you were directly quoting someone who was directly quoting a line from a movie or a song (with attribution), it would still be wrong?

    I’m writing a novel about life in the late 1970s, and as teens we would often repeat the popular phrases from movies and music in our day-to-day discourse.

    • I’m so with you Bryce – my husband can still quote, verbatim, whole sketches from Monty Python’s Flying Circus – and we so often verbally re-enact snippets or even scenes from iconic (to us) films because they were so much part of our lives. ‘I love you!’ ‘I know.’ …… ‘Of all the Gin joints … Play it!’ I can still hear a song from the 70s or even 60s! that I haven’t heard in years and somehow know pretty much know all the lyrics. I’m gutted that I can’t bring some of the stuff I love so much into the world I’m creating. Ah well!

      • Jan, it strikes me from reading these posts and responses (and I’ll be happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about this) that an author is permitted to paraphrase a significant line in a song without using the actual lyric itself. If you were to describe your emotional response to the opening line of “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles, you could write, “Listening to John Lennon inviting me to come with him to visit a sentimental place from his childhood brought to mind memories of my own…” You’re not using, “Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields” in any way, shape or form, but a lot of readers would identify exactly with the mood you were describing. It strikes me (again, hopefully correctly) that this would be an acceptable use of the song without infringing on anyone’s copyrights.

  25. Okwhatif change all of the words. Example let’s say the lyrics were “time heals all wounds” and I changed it to “hours turn wounds into scars” or something along those lines?

  26. I wrote lyrics to jazz songs that have no lyrics. What would I do in this case?
    Should I not mention the name of the original song in the lyrics I wrote, if I want to use it in my book?


    • Chaz, You are allowed to write your own lyrics for instrumental songs as long as you’re just using them in your book. For example you can write a passage that says, “Beth sang ‘I’m feeling mighty down” to the tune of ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis.” But if you were to record a version of that song, then you need to deal with mechanical royalties.

  27. I write a Monday through Friday prayer/devotional and include the lyrics to a song, I post it on my facebook page and email it to a small email list of friends and family. To archive for my immediate family I print out 3 months at a time. Nothing is sold. Writers, composers, artists are all credited, lyrics are always complete and accurate.

  28. So my character is singing a song at a function. She sings the song title, “Have you ever,” or “Have you ever,” by Brandy.
    If I mention the name of the person who actually sings this song will I need to get their permission and or because there ar numerous songs that are song by various people, can I just list the name of the song without needed permission?

    • hELLO sCOTT, i am reading up on protcol for book writing.l I started my Memoirs some years ago but then had 2 heart attacks and delayed writing. Then had a stroke. I am back to finishing this book of Memoires for my family aND GRANDCHILDREN. Mom wrote a short segment before she died prompting me to write a history of our lives and accomnplisments before I died for family and freinds. But, I am concerned. I received a gift as a child that I dearly loved, I listed “Peter and The Wolf”. I also listed the books the nuns would read to us, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Anne Frank. Also I talked about the War. I posted my Mom would sing ‘The White Cliffs of Dover”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” Mom was a young widow raising three toddlers. I mentioned we would lay under the tree with the bubble Lights glistening, listenung to Bing Crosby singing, “I’ll be home for Christmas” and “White Christmas” and the Ave Maria. All Dad’s favorite songs. Just titles of all of these. I mentioned loving the Nancy Drew Books. (Author’s name of many books she wrote) Am, I violating anything by using these titles of songs, books, author’s names? I do not have a publisher as I am a novice in publishing. . But the contents are beautiful I am told. I am trying ti finish this up in the next 3 months. Also. I listed names of people who helped my Mom after Dad passed away at age 37. Should I use only first names. Some say it is ok to list their full name. Others are deceased now. Thank You so much for your help, Scott. Nana MRose I have 85 pages typed to this date size 12 font.

  29. I recently wrote a flash story influenced by Every Breath You Take. In my 1st version, I used the 3-part chorus. In version 2 I severely reduced that to my sample here. “I’ll be watching you” seems to be a common phrase, but is it fair to use as below? Is the title safe?

    Every Breath You Take

    Someone whispered melodically, hauntingly in my ear, “Sheep, I’ll be watching you . . . ”
    Cold wind rocked him in my rocker slowly. Though my heart raced in terror, I moved toward him; his wispiness dissipated before I could turn on a lamp.

  30. Absolutely great article. I agree with ‘just drop it and write your own.’ Seems just that would help one become a better writer. . .

  31. However, if you’re looking for story, the lyrics of a song can be very inspirational!

    As an aside, Louise Penny in ‘How the Light Gets In’ thanks Leonard Cohen for his generosity. When approached to use some of the lyrics from the 1993 song ‘Anthem’, he gave them to her for free. You can read it at the very start of the book using the ‘Look Inside’ at Amazon.

  32. I’m writing a memoir. I was married to a man who wrote a song I’ve included in my book. The lyrics were never recorded. I believe the song was written between 1977 – 1980. I divorced him before he died.

    Would his children still have reason to sue me?

  33. My book is all about British broadside ballads. All of which are over 150 years old. The words are from printed material between 1768 and 1868. I am also printing melodies known to be used during the time the songs where written they are adapted to fit the words that were printed without music. I believe that what I am doing is free of copyright problems. Is that just wishful thinking on my part?

  34. I plan on publishing my book as a hardcover but also as an ebook. In the ebook, I want to use a link to Jonas Kaufman singing a famous aria. The link happens to be to a Youtube recording that is online and that people can access anytime they want on Youtube. Am I infringing on anything with the use of that link?

  35. Hmm you’ve started me thinking now, I have one novel I’m thinking about publishing where the characters discuss a well known soap opera. They recognise the dumpty-dumpty-dum-de-dum-de-diddly-dum of the soap operas theme song and they mention the title and how comforting it is to hear the characters, which they mention by name, discussing mundane things while they’re in the middle of a crisis.
    What do you think? Do I need to rewrite or get permission?

  36. Scott – Great article. I can see why it was the most popular blog article on the site last year. I have a few questions – not about song lyrics but about using book excerpts and quotes that I hope you can answer. This is in reference to writing a novel.
    1)Is there a list of books that are in public domain? (I’m sure it would be massive, but a place to start)
    2)Do you need permission to use a quote from a famous person as long as you give credit. I see many authors use quotes at the beginning of their books or before chapters.
    3)If you want to get permission to use a short excerpt from a book, who do you contact? The publisher? And if so, any one in particular at the publishing company?
    I would greatly appreciate any advice you could give.

  37. Hi, Thanks for this discussion! What if I have a character sing the first word of a song that is the same as the title of the song (ie “Summertime”)?

  38. 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?

    • I don’t know the answer. My guess: If you’re referring to the .38 Special song, “Hold on Loosely,” the lyrics are (slightly) different, and the expression may be common enough that you should be fine.

  39. 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?

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.


  43. “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?

  44. 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)

  45. 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?

    • 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!

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

  47. 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)?

    • 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.

  48. 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).


  49. 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?

  50. 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.

  51. “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.

  52. “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.

  53. 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

  54. 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.

    • 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.

  55. 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.

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

      • 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?

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. 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.

  59. 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.

    • 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.

  60. 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.

  61. 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?

    • 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.

    • 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.

  62. 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.

  63. 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.

  64. 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?

      • Same question as above but with using QR Codes in print. I am publishing a prompted journal. I changed the words on the front cover to relay the same message that is in lyrics of a song by a very popular band from the 70’s. Then I wrote a preface about how that song inspired me; title and band included. Can I take it a step further and include a QR Code to a website that publishes lyrics to thousands of songs ( The goal is to inspire people to listen to music as they write or use music to help them release their emotions by journaling.

        • As always, with the “I’m not a lawyer” preamble… everything you’re suggesting here is fine. The problems arise when you print and publish someone else’s work without permission. Song names, band names, shout outs to those who’ve inspired you, and links to resources are all fair game.

  65. 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.

  66. 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.)


    • 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…

        • 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.

  67. 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.


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