Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property » I want to quote lyrics from a popular song in my novel. Must I get permission to do so?

I want to quote lyrics from a popular song in my novel. Must I get permission to do so?

12 September 2011

Attorney and freelance writer Dina M. Di Maio tells you about using song lyrics in your book:

I want to quote lyrics from a popular song in my novel? Must I get permission to do so?

Published works, including song lyrics, copyrighted before 1923 are in the public domain, which means they are no longer copyright-protected and you may use them freely in your work without permission.

However, most writers want to use contemporary song lyrics in their work. For these songs, you must get permission from the copyright owner.

. . . .

But what if I only want to use a few lines?

A song or poem warrants the same protection as a novel. Since a song or poem is much shorter, taking a few lines from a song could be like using 60% of the work. Isn’t it fair use just to quote a few lines from the song? A popular misconception of fair use is that it means it is fair for you to use copyrighted material because you are only using a little bit of it.

Link to the rest at New York Book Woman

Passive Guy will add that you’ll run into similar issues using poems that are still under copyright. Many are so short that even a couple of lines will be the equivalent of someone copying 25 pages from your novel.

Copyright/Intellectual Property

19 Comments to “I want to quote lyrics from a popular song in my novel. Must I get permission to do so?”

  1. PG, I have been wondering. If you include an in-context song or poem in your book, of your own creation, how do the protections work?

    In lengthy work, an individual song is a tiny percent of the work. If someone were to ‘lift it’ and put it to music. Would they need permissions to use the material or would they be claming it fair use? Alternatively, if they lifted it and modified it slightly, how would copy rights view it?

    Truthfully, (at this point in my life)I might be more flattered if it was done…provided that they gave credit where it was due. After all, that has to be good publicity for your work, right? Though if it was a big name band, who went on to sell a million or so copies of the mp3/cd it was on…I might want some kind of compensation. Is that unreasonable of me?

    PIC (point in case) I’d have to have a work out there first that someone felt was worth lifting from…before that mattered.

  2. I have often wondered about this point and thank you for clearing this topic up for me. I mention certain songs in my work of fiction but never the actual text of the song.

  3. If it’s a modern, popular song, this could cost a lot of money – for instance, if you want a line or two from something written by John Lennon. And some songwriters can get difficult – so do check it out. Of course, if it’s ancient, then it’s out of copyright and doesn’t matter.

  4. I tried to get permission for using some lyrics from a song. It took some doing, but I traced the copyright.

    However, they wanted to discuss it by phone, and I wasn’t available for a phone call.

    The emails were amiable, but I dropped the ball – couldn’t get in touch by phone. I wish I had.

  5. Thanks PG. This has come up a few times in the critique group I belong to, mostly with song lyrics. I’ve known for a while that you don’t have carte blanche for songs not in the public domain, but now I can point people to the whole story.

  6. I quoted song lyrics and poetry at the beginning of each chapter in my book, The Unveiling. I had to trace who owned the copyrights, get signed permission and pay a fee for most, unless the material was already in the public domain. The fees were modest amounts, but the time it took was significant.

  7. Lawrence Lessig goes over this, and related topics, in detail in his book Free Culture. I highly recommend the book, it goes beyond copyright law and looks at the larger social implications of strict and lax culture sharing.

  8. Ignoring the fact that this is almost always more trouble than it’s worth, I’m going to approach it from a critical standpoint (and I’m generalizing here, based on years of workshopping and exposure to magazine slush). My experience is, the use of the copyrighted lyrics is almost always unnecessary, or more importantly, it SHOULD be unnecessary.

    The key question is, what is it you think is so weak about your writing that believe you need to prop it up with the words of another writer?

    The usual response to this is, “but I want to use the song to evoke a emotion/tone/feeling/atmosphere/period/etc.” Uh, you can’t do that yourself? Then you’re a pretty p***-poor excuse for a writer, aren’t you? It usually comes down to this: you’re either insecure about your abilities, or just too lazy to do the work yourself.

    In any case, there are ways, when it’s appropriate or necessary, to evoke a song without using copyrighted lyrics, or sometimes even a title. Often a mention of an artist and a bit of the subject matter is all that’s necessary for a well-known tune (or in some cases, to allow your reader to pick their own favorite from a body of similar work). My favorite tool is to focus on describing the emotional reaction of a character listening to the song, which is far more immediate, and will tend to keep the reader involved in YOUR story and words, rather than sidetracking them into somebody else’s.

    • A long time ago, my wife had a Welsh character with reality issues quote a few lines from a Dylan Thomas poem in one of her books.

      After receiving pushback from her publisher, since I had studied a lot of Thomas in college, she asked me if I couldn’t channel a Welsh poet. After dislocating my mind a few times, I managed to write several short poems or poem segments in the style of a psycho Welsh poet.

    • You statement that quoting lyrics from a song or poem means that you think your writing is weak and needs to be propped up with the words of another writer” reflects a narrow understanding of the reasons authors might decide to include such quotes. My book was based on family history and the lyrics quoted were from actual songs that were part of the collective family memory. One song, BYE, BYE, BLACKBIRD, was not only the favorite of one of the main characters, a song he sang to his children before his illness, and particularly poignant in reflecting the history of that individual.

      Yes, it is time-consuming and bothersome to get permission. I would recommend using lyrics only if the exact song and lyrics have particular meaning to the story. Getting permission delayed my publication date, but in this case it was worth it. Some of the feedback I have received reinforces this position.

      • Further to my comment at 9;24 am on Sept. 13, 2011:

        My last post was sent in haste. Once I posted it, I realized that it needed some revisions. I could not find a method for revising it on the original post, so am sending them here.

        The first word in the first sentence should be “Your” and the quotes in that sentence should be around the phrase “needs to be propped up with the words of another writer”… The last sentence in the first paragraph should read as follows: “One song, BYE, BYE, BLACKBIRD, was not only the favorite of one of the main characters, but also a song he sang to his children before his illness, and was particularly poignant in reflecting the history of that individual.”

        • As a novelist, I did fall into the trap of thinking primarily in terms of fiction. There are indeed more likely to be reasons to need to quote lyrics (or use copyrighted photos, or to quote copyrighted news articles, or use other types of derived works) in a non-fiction book or article, and that’s a valid point of discussion.

          However, much of what I’ve said often still applies. Not having read the work (and no, that’s not a request) I can’t say with certainty, but nothing you’ve stated here convinces me otherwise in this case.

          First, to the extent that this specific song may be important or central in your family history and story (was it really? REALLY?), simply by giving me the title, my being a person of an appropriate age and experience, you’ve put the lyrics into my head. Quoting them back to me is unnecessary, probably redundant, and possibly intrusive to my own emotional reaction to the song.

          Of course, not all readers may share that experience, and so you may feel it necessary to “bring them up to speed” on the matter, but to my mind, that’s like explaining a joke. If you need to do it, the joke didn’t work. Properly written, the passage could deliver the emotional impact of the song, even if the song was unfamiliar (or even, in the case of a novel, entirely fictional).

          If, on the other hand, the emotion is delivered to the reader only via the song lyrics, the the song is doing the heavy lifting, not the writer. That you, or a family member, or the reader have some emotional resonance with the song isn’t surprising. That’s what good songs do; tap into collective experiences and emotions. But it’s the songwriter doing this, not the book author, and that’s lazy.

          Its your job as writer to take your story (fictional or non-fiction) and give it emotional resonance to the reader. Candy-coating it with other people’s words may help it go down well, but that doesn’t change the quality of the core of your work.

          A rule of thumb here: If the lyrics are not FACTUALLY necessary to the work (say, in describing how uncle Billy planned a series of murders around the lyrics of the song “Happy Birthday”), then there is a good chance that by removing them and rewriting, the book will (at least if its done right) become stronger in the process.

  9. I agree with Leah. Songs are a beautiful way to add depth and resonance to a piece and adding lyrics in no way makes the writer “weak” or their work “propped up”. If that were true, then adding music to movie scenes would also be superfluous and, to me, that is completely ridiculous. There are a lot of great writers that have added lyrics to their work (Stephen King being one of them and he most certainly is NOT a weak writer). We can agree to disagree but I can personally say that when I read a book with familiar lyrics, I feel more nostalgically connected to the book. It’s the writer’s book-they can write it however they want and let the readers decide.

    • Thanks for your comments, Gina. I decided to use the lyrics in my book because of my reactions to some other books by a number of well-known authors.

    • The mention of movies (and television programs) using music isn’t unexpected. It’s also comparing apples with oranges.

      First of all “the addition of music to movie scenes,” where that music is part of the original score, makes it part of the work, not something cobbled in from another sources, so that really doesn’t apply.

      Second, in modern movies, most new songs aren’t added to movies for creative reasons, but for marketing ones. They’re trying to sell albums and downloads (often for record labels owned by the same parent company that made the movie). They also add product placements for cars and soft-drinks. That’s not a reason you should add them to your books (unless you can also get paid for it, of course).

      Third, there’s the use (most closely resembling what most authors imagine when they insert copyrighted lyrics into their work) of old songs to establish period, mood, emotion or add some ironic or comedic point.

      There can be valid creative reasons in a movie or TV show, simply because the storytelling form is so limited. A typical novel has three times the page count of a typical movie script, and far less white space on the page. Movies can’t (at least not without clumsy and off-putting tricks like voice-overs or narration) get directly inside a character’s head the way a novel or story can. It’s a different form, and is requires a different set of tools, including visual clues, use of props and costumes to establish character or back-story, acting tricks to communicate internal emotions, and yeah, sometimes, use of familiar songs.

      Not that this isn’t can’t be lazy and cliche in movies too. Through the 70s and 80s in particular, movies overused a small pool of 50s pop standards to the point of nausea, something that critics were quick to jump on.

      But movies and TV shows also use songs BECAUSE THEY CAN. They already cost a ton of money, and already have an army of lawyers involved. The cost and complication of adding a song permission is pretty minor in the overall scheme of things. They may also have access, through the parent production company, to low-cost access to a library of familiar works (which the parent company has a vested interest in KEEPING familiar and therefore valuable). This does not apply to individual authors.

      And even for the movie and TV folks, this can create huge problems. A prime example are the soapy teen dramas of the CW network in the US. I have to admit to having had a fondness for a couple of these, including a sci-fi entry called “Roswell.”

      It was typical of these shows to plaster the sound-track wall-to-wall with current music releases. On some shows, these are about as important to the show itself as elevator music, but Roswell tended to make more effective use of their songs to resonate with the scenes than most. Unfortunately, when it came time to release the show on DVD, the song permissions were too expensive, so all the music was ripped out and (by some reports rather crudely) replaced.

      This was especially true in that the show remained a cult show on a minor network with a small but loyal following, while many of the songs used in the soundtrack became major hits by major artists who were suddenly less interested in giving permission for cheap or free as a promotion.

      That’s a factor in the re-release of many old movies and TV shows, and some remain locked in the vaults simply because there’s no economic way to release them, or because the legal web of permissions and rights involved are simply too complex to untangle.

      That’s another aspect of the use of quoted material such as song lyrics, in literary works that hasn’t been discussed. You’re unlikely to get a blanket permission for the use of your song lyrics. Each time you re-release or reprint your work, you must go back to the negotiating table and pay the CURRENT rate for the use of the work, which will move entirely independently of the value of your own work. So, for example, of that relatively unknown performer you saw and liked at a local club turns out to be the next Elvis or Madonna or Lady Gaga, sorry, their rates may have gone up 10000%. Or more.

      Or (and consider this), they may simply refuse permission to use the lyrics completely. That’s their right. Maybe the company that owns the song is having a spat with the company publishing your book, and they’re doing it out of spite. Maybe the performer has O.D.ed and left their song catalog to their fundamentalist grandma who believes that all books in your genre are porn, or that having your villain smoke and say “gosh darn” goes against the Bible.

      Or there’s the other extreme. Maybe the copyright owner will simply disappear, and then what do you do? Do you reprint the work without a valid permission on the assumption that they’d dead, or won’t notice, or won’t care, and simply hope that they don’t retroactively show up with a couple lawyers and retroactively demand your life savings and your house?

      A million things can go wrong here, and by incorporating song lyrics into your work, you’ve left yourself open to them.

      Of course, if the lyrics weren’t really essential to the work, you can take them out for your paperback or ebook or omnibus or audio-book edition. BUT IF THEY WEREN’T ESSENTIAL TO THE WORK, WHY DID YOU PUT THEM IN IN THE FIRST PLACE?

      Using song lyrics is like welding a legal ball-and-chain to the work. You’ll have to drag it along every step of the way, essentially forever. Actually, it’s worse. It’ a ball-and-chain with a ticking time-bomb inside, that could blow up any time you move.

      Why would you voluntarily do this? Because you saw it in a movie? Because you saw some major author do it (and you probably don’t have any idea of the expensive and grief it may have caused them)?

      I’m not saying there might not be circumstances or creative reasons in some circumstances to do this; where it’s a good choice, perhaps the only choice. I’m also pretty statistically safe in saying, if you think that applies to you, you’re wrong.

  10. I’m still wondering how the reverse holds up. If you create an original poem or song, for the sake of your book. Is it protected if first published within the book…or is it now such a small percentage of the work that it is less protected?

    If it is less protected in that state, is it more protected if you later gather a few of them up and release them as a collection of your ‘poems and songs from my works’ ? Akin to reprinting a short story collection.


  11. @Leah-I’m going to go to your website and read about your book. It sounds interesting and you seem very gracious, open-minded, and approachable.

  12. @Gina – Thanks again for your kind comments. Let me know your reactions to the website. I will be reviewing yours as well.

  13. Bahaha. Simone Felice was just saying at his gig the other night how he wanted some lyrics from the Beatles ‘Blackbird’ to preface his novel (Black Jesus). “Sir Paul” said he could. For 200,000 pounds. eek!

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