Hi there! Duolit is on hiatus, but please feel free to explore our extensive archive of posts and our free Weekend Book Marketing Makeover. Thanks for visiting!

Quoting Lyrics and Dodging Copyright Issues [Guest Post]

The following is a guest post by Grant Piercy. Thanks for a great post, Grant!

So you’re in the process of writing your masterpiece. Say you’re in the car, contemplating your work-in-progress, and a song comes on the radio. You hear some great lyric that somehow clicks with your manuscript; it applies so well that you want to share it, either in text or as a preface to the work. Or maybe you just have a character listening to or singing the song.

Stephen King does it. Bret Easton Ellis does it. Alan Moore does it. Why can’t you? It doesn’t help that there are hundreds of Web sites out there built on posting lyrics. People quote lyrics, somewhat annoyingly, on their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Later, when you’re thinking of actually publishing your literary masterpiece, thanks to Kindle’s easy-to-use self-publishing tools, or those of Barnes & Noble’s Pubit, or Apple’s iBooks, etc., you begin to wonder. “Are there any legal ramifications to publishing someone else’s lyrics in my work? It’s only one line, what damage could it do?”

Let me make this perfectly clear. Unless you want to pay royalties to someone else, or you want to limit your print run (self-publishing e-suicide), you probably don’t want to quote lyrics.

I understand. It’s going to be different for you. You’ve heard this before from some other author who couldn’t get the job done. You’re going to quote your favorite artist and that artist is going to think your work is awesome and point to it and say, “Look. This guy quoted me. This book is awesome.”

No. No. No.

This was me. I created a character for my book, The Erased, who happened to be an epileptic, who used song lyrics to keep himself from seizing. Not to get too detailed or anything, but in my research, I found that epileptics tend to repeat their name or small phrases to help prevent seizures, and this seemed perfect. This character was obsessed with music, he’s constantly singing to himself. I incorporated lyrics from some favorite artists (Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Joy Division, Lou Reed), but I really didn’t want to go overboard.

When I finished the book, I asked myself that question. What are the legal ramifications, the copyright issues? I tried to justify it to myself. Practically the entire music industry is based on sampling or copying (even if the RIAA fervently pursues every legal recourse against pirates — the hypocrisy isn’t lost on me). It’s an extremely hairy issue. But it’s all totally different if the sampling or copying is authorized. And to get that authorization, you’re going to pay a pretty penny.

The whole process for me was time consuming, confusing, and complicated, just to come to this simple conclusion.

If you’re going to even try, the first thing you’ll want to do is check with Hal Leonard, which is the biggest name in music publishing. They have a searchable database and a form that you can fill out that will help you request the rights to the song you want to quote. But prepare to spend at least $100 per song, no matter how much of the song you plan to quote. This also depends on your desired print run and how much you want to charge for each copy of your book. Considering e-book publication is open-ended, or at least you should hope it’s open-ended, you’ll likely be asked to limit the number of copies you can sell. Once you reach this number, you’ll have to re-up with the contract you’re offered. My price-tag would’ve been somewhere north of the $500 mark.

Sure, you might sell 10,000 copies, at which point, your former contract probably won’t matter all that much, and renewing won’t be too much of an issue. Publishing companies have people in place that can negotiate contracts like this and work in the author’s favor. Doing it yourself adds the risk that you’re going to be taken advantage of.

This seems like the easy route, in all honesty. To get this far, I e-mailed several management teams of the different artists that I wanted to quote. Sometimes this information was extremely hard to get, since certain artists have been defunct for years. Other artists had management and contract issues long ago, so one song might be owned by three different companies. Artists who don’t work with record labels anymore might have their publishing rights distributed strictly through lawyers.

Then there’s this other term that gets thrown around: “fair use.” This is a loophole in copyright law that allows the distribution of copyrighted material for educational purposes only. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only a line or two of copyrighted material in your 60,000 word manuscript falls under fair-use, especially if you plan on selling that manuscript.

This sort of thing doesn’t only apply to song lyrics, but also quotations from authors in copyrighted works. I was able to secure a few lines from an author due to a gracious publisher who was easy to contact. If you’re going to go this route, be sure to include all the pertinent information about your manuscript — the price you plan to sell, the quotation you want to use, and you may even want to mention any other quotes from other authors that you want or plan to use.

Honestly, if that publisher hadn’t been so nice and quick to respond, I don’t think I would have pursued the lyric quotations like I did.

You do have other options. Song titles are not song lyrics, and titles are not copyrightable; neither are names. This may be why some book and movie titles end up stealing the titles of famous songs. If you can squirm it naturally into the text, consider referring to the song you want to use this way. This can evoke just as much emotion as actual lyrics if you do it properly:

“Dad’s telling me that he’d like to listen to ‘She Blinded Me with Science.’ Mom’s shaking her head and suggesting something from David. ‘Hang On To Yourself.’ Or maybe it was ‘The Man Who Sold the World.’ Tough to tell, looking back.

This route isn’t for everybody, and to be honest, I’m not exactly sure that it works. The way I understand the copyright law, it’s like this: you’re referring to a song title (not copyrightable) in a fairly innocuous way, without slandering the creator of the music. Since you’re not slandering anyone, they probably don’t mind their name being mentioned. Beyond that, as a self-published author, your book’s not likely to make a lot of waves and the named artist will never notice it anyway. But make no mistake: there’s a big difference between referring to a song title and using a copyrighted song lyric.

Maybe you’d be better off making up a different set of lyrics by a fictional musician that you create. Sometimes that isn’t as sexy as paying homage to someone who’s inspired you. It also adds to the suspension of disbelief — real people wrote real songs to which your characters refer. Maybe instead of quoting, you could describe what the song sounds like instead.

You can also consider quoting something in the public domain. Almost anything 90 years or older is in the public domain — you’re free to quote it or use it as you will. This is why the field of literary mash-ups (books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) has become so popular in recent years. But this is tricky for different countries and different publication dates: see this List of Countries for their copyright length.

Also, if you plan on quoting anything in your novel that could be considered copyrighted material, get yourself a book on literary copyright law. This can help you navigate the sticky legal issues without having to consult an intellectual property attorney. These laws have become even more complex in the Internet age. If you go this far, you can possibly consult the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

But here’s what you’re probably going to hear from other authors, even though you see the greats do it all the time: consider not using the lyrics at all. Ask yourself in each instance: what does this truly add to the story? You’re a writer. Why do you need to rely on this crutch?

About the Author

Grant Piercy recently published his debut science fiction novel, The Erased, about a wrongfully detained prisoner tasked with repairing a broken android. It’s currently available as an e-book through Amazon’s Kindle store. He grew up in north central Illinois, but currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and two dogs. He also enjoys discussing topics ranging from Nine Inch Nails and Gary Numan to the future of artifical intelligence on his blog.

Follow him on Twitter, Tumblr, or email (heathens dot on dot fire [at] g mail dot com).

  • Kirsten Weiss

    Great info here!  Thanks!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Kirsten! Grant wrote a great post.

  • Brewt Blacklist

    Thanks for the heads up. Which is the warmup for the questions: What about paraphrasing lyrics? How much of a difference will constitute enough of a difference to stay out of trouble? Does misquoting lyrics count?

    • Paraphrasing and misquoting is a tricky subject. The book I have on copyright has a couple listings regarding what does and does not constitute plagiarism in those regards. Paraphrasing tends to be okay for the most part — “Bowie’s spaceman, drifting out amongst the stars, forever and ever” is an apt description of what happens to Major Tom in Bowie’s Space Oddity. Describing is a good thing. Misquoting or muffling the lyrics (as I’d been asked by someone on Twitter)… eeeeeh I think you’d be on the safer side trying to get publishing rights. Courts have ruled far less to be plagiaristic.

      If you’re not satisfied with this answer, I suggest as I did in the post — get yourself either a copyright lawyer or read up a little more on copyright. Invest in a book on copyright law, there’s tons of them out there; it’s going to be a self-pubbed author’s best friend.

    • Thanks for the comment and questions, Brewt — and for the thoughtful reply, Grant. This is an intriguing and important writing topic!

    • Brewt Blacklist

      Thanks. As you’ve already done a lot of the legwork, can I (we) ask what book you’re talking out of? No, not for any lame-o “but Grant said…” defense; I’m just not sure where to start…

    • Grant Piercy

      There are dozens to choose from on Amazon, but the one I went with was “The Copyright Handbook” by Stephen Fishman, part of a series of legal handbooks from a publisher called Nolo.

    • Brewt Blacklist

      thanks! Most helpful…

    • Grant Piercy

      Also just came across this helpful FAQ offered by Writer’s Digest, for anyone interested: https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/what-writers-need-to-know-about-copyrights-faqs

  • Richard Leonard

    Very valuable advice, Grant. My WIP novel has been idle for some time and I can’t remember whether or not I quoted any lyrics. Must remember to check next time I pick it up again
    What I do remember is quoting something attributed to actor and comedian, Robin Williams. I think I picked it up 3rd or 4th hand so it may not even have been him. I guess the same rules apply.


    • Grant did a fantastic job with this post, didn’t he? Thanks for sharing your story, Richard. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Hi! Great article! My WIP has to quote a lyric, but is from a traditional African American lullaby, so I believe I’m okay… However, do you now if using a singer’s name is a problem? Only mentioning that my character loves him/her by name?

    I’ve never found an answer to that…

    • Hi Renata! I wish I could help, but I think Grant could probably answer your question better than me. He’s really good about coming back and answering comments, but, in the meantime, you might consider dropping him an email or tweet?

    • Great idea! I’ll do that!

  • Grant, I HEAR you! You’ve blogged about an issue that a lot of writers are still not privy to or even aware of for the exact reason you stated, they see other writers do it who can afford to pay for copyright blithely quoting away in their own tomes. I am the biggest music nut in London. And Gunshot Glitter is a Jeff Buckley song and my novel had quotes from The Cure, NIN, INXS, Foals – gorgeous, appropriate lyrics to bolster the intensity of the narrative. I pulled them all out. Made me want to weep.
    I don’t have the kind of funds needed to pay £200 odd for 7 words. It’s a shame, oddly, it’s aright for musicians to use words from books in their lyrics, just not the other way round. The thing I don’t get is, from my perspective, it’s free publicity for the artist. If someone loves ‘ A Crowd of Furies in your Head’ as a line, they might think, hmmm I shall go and find that song – and bam! A new fan is born when they fall in love with it. Good luck with your novel.

  • This is great information. I am not an attorney, but work in communications and brand management. I would add that some names–particularly band or musicians’ names–may be trademarked, so a good rule is to research names as well. An excellent search tool is uspto.gov for trademark searches in the U.S.

  • Neha kumar

    Your Information Is Great I Am Interested In These Instrection Thanks For Sharing.
    keep it up

  • lisamattson

    Very great insight. This is consistent with what my literary attorney has told me. One question though: What about paraphrasing the lyrics of the song? What if you name the song title and then reference a line In the lyrics without saying the verbatim words?

  • William Geuss

    Thanks, Gary, wish I had found this before I went the same long way around the same barn.

  • Jersey Jux

    What if most of the song lyrics you wish to include were actually entendres written about you…? They can’t really get mad…

  • Guest

    I don’t know if this thread is still live, but I’m curious weather you have to give credit when mentioning a song title. Would I list the copyright information such as who wrote it/owns it/etc under the copyright page if I say something like “It reminded me of ‘Space Oddity’ from David Bowie” in the text of the book itself?

  • Tatjana

    *Sigh* and press ‘delete’.

  • Castiel Novak-Winchester

    Okay, but wait! My teacher said that if we could come up with a title for her book she would give us credit somewhere in it and I suggested “Bipolar Disorder, Shits Not in Order” and its technically from a song, but a few words are missing from ot, the song is Secrets and the actual line is “Ive got Bipolar disorder, my shits not in order…” would that still be counter as plagiarism????

  • CathieDesigns

    Thanks for such a comprehensive comment on this issue. There goes my plan! But at least I now know that my ‘good idea’ wasn’t such a good one after all.

  • Banjo Peppers

    I know this is old, but thanks for the article! I wasn’t sure at all – I remember reading somewhere that you could use up to 7 bars of a piece of music if you were writing a song without it being a copyright infringement, so I thought maybe it would be the same if you were quoting lyrics, but I wanted to make super sure. I’m planning on writing a comic where every segment is named after a song and wanted to quote a bit of the song to go with it, but I thought I should check out to be SUPER sure of the legality before quoting potentially hundreds of songs.

    But, I still have some questions – like, what if your song quote isn’t explicitly a song quote? I’m sure the copyright police couldn’t fine you for having a character just say “I am sixteen, going on seventeen” even though that’s a song lyric. I mean I know any song lyric that’s kind of general can’t be copyright enforced, but where is the line drawn? I understand I would have to license if I wanted to use an entire verse of a song, but what about just one line that comes out to being less than a full sentence? Clearly I’ll have to do more research.

  • Lyrics Labs

    Thanks for sharing this. Great info here
    Latest Song Lyrics