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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Quoting Song Lyrics in Your Fiction

Avril Lavigne in concertA question that arises regularly on my forum at is how to get permission to quote song lyrics in fiction.

Many people don't realise that permission is needed to do this, and that it can be difficult and expensive to obtain.

So I was pleased to read this informative article by Blake Morrison in Saturday's Guardian newspaper on this subject. In his article (which I recommend reading in full), Mr Morrison writes:

A friend emailed me a while back to ask for advice. She'd just finished a novel that quoted some lines from famous pop songs and she wondered if I'd any tips for her. I had. Just one. Don't ever quote lines from pop songs.

I wish someone had given me that advice when I was writing my last novel, South of the River, at the end of which there's a party, with music and dancing. As author you get to play DJ, and the tracks I put on for my characters were a mix of 60s classics and more recent numbers. Because the songs were there not just for atmosphere but to echo events and themes in the novel, it was important, I felt, to include the words, not just the titles...

Mr Morrison goes on to reveal that he was charged a total of £4,401.75 (about $6,000 US) for quoting lines from a handful of pop songs, including £1,000 for 11 words of 'I Shot the Sheriff', payable to the Bob Marley estate.

The author is responsible for paying the cost of permissions, and for a new author a bill such as that mentioned above could easily wipe out any income from royalties and leave them looking at a financial loss.

The moral seems to be that as a new novelist in particular you should be very wary of quoting song lyrics in your book. You can still quote song titles, as these are not generally protected by copyright. Or you could follow the advice of Blake Morrison in the article: "[The] next time I need songs I'll make them up myself. Or do as the narrator does in my new novel, when he hears U2 coming from his housemate's bedroom - refrain from quoting even a syllable of the lyrics."

Photo credit: Avril Lavigne in concert in Amsterdam, by .Storm on Flickr

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Blogger sreelatamenon said...

Thank you so much for this info.I am glad you thought of putting it up cos -I get the Guardian too but didn't see it- I for one didn't know quoting lyrics wasn't free...

1:03 PM  
Blogger The Corvus Report said...

thanks for the info, though, I thought that one could quote public domain songs without permission.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

We're talking about copyright law here. Any piece of original creative writing (including song lyrics) is protected for a long time. It varies a bit around the world, but typically copyright doesn't expire until 70 years after the death of the copyright owner.

So you would probably be safe quoting the lyrics of a traditional folk song (say), but anything written in the last 100 years or so (most modern popular music, in other words) is likely to be protected by copyright and permission required.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I've known that publishing lyrics from popular artists was copyright infringement, and I've been looking for an alternative, because the songs I've quoted work so well!

My question would be, what alternatives do you have? For example, I'd like to evoke the mood/connotation of Matthew Good's "Weapon," and I find that the song works on several levels of reality for my novel. How can I hint at the song without quoting it?

Also, can you quote the title of the work? For example, if I want to allude to Matthew Good's "The Bright End of Nowhere," the title is unique enough to be recognizable, but does that mean I can't have a character use the phrase "The Bright End of Nowhere?"

I realize most won't have the answers for this but if you have any suggestions feel free to comment. Thanks.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Are you allowed to just use the title of the song? I want one of my characters to just mention the name of a song. Not the artist, just the song. Is this legal?

6:18 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

You should be safe quoting just the title - e.g. "I heard the sound of the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby drifting across the corridor." It's just the lyrics themselves you need to be careful about.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I'm presently dealing with the 'permissions' business for the nonfiction book I've written, I found the info on this site most valuable.
Question: In mentioning just the title of a song, does the singer's name also have to be mentioned?
Also, 'Amazing Grace' dates 1779, so I believe 'No Permission Required.' Am I right?
I welcome any insight on the above question: Does the singer's name have to also be mentioned? And for some Country Western Songs, I used 3/4 actual lyrics. Guess that's not okay?

12:21 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for the query. As I've said above, I'm not a lawyer, so this is just my understanding of the situation as a writer who has looked into this a bit.

If you are simply mentioning the name of a song, I am not aware of any law that requires you to mention the name of the artist at the same time. And, in any event, many songs have been recorded by multiple artists, of course.

Certainly, based on the info you have given, the lyrics of Amazing Grace are well out of copyright now, so no permission is required to reproduce them.

And yes, if you want to quote 3/4 of the lyrics of any song (C&W or otherwise) that is within copyright, you would definitely require permission. That is a substantial portion of the song, and any claim that copying this amount constituted 'Fair Use' would (in my opinion) get short shrift from the courts. Sorry!

Hope that helps - Nick

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Steve Hobson said...

Thank you so much for this. I've just finished my first novel. It contains short lyrics from half a dozen songs. I had wrongly assumed that once I find a literary agent they would sort out the necessary permissions. I was also considering self publishing on kindle. I'm so glad I didn't do that. What a minefield. Thanks to your informative article I am now rewriting the book without the lyrics, but maybe keeping the song titles.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

No problem, Steve. Yes, you do need to be very careful about quoting song lyrics. But simply mentioning some song titles should not present any problems.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous lguebert said...

Do the same rules apply for non-fiction? I have used several song lyrics as chapter titles in my grief memoir.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Fiction or non-fiction, it makes no difference. If you are quoting song lyrics, you need to get permission.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Marie said...

In my forthcoming book,"Graceland Express" I would like to use the titles of songs Elvis performed as chapter titles. Am I treading on shaky soil here?

7:46 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I wouldn't see a problem with that myself. It's the lyrics you need permission to quote, not the song titles.

10:04 PM  
Anonymous Writing a Song said...

I love this blog. Thanks for this very inspiring and wonderful post which very useful to everyone who visit.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Vonjazz said...

Thanks so much for the warning.

This is, I feel, a sad reflection of a warped industry, trying its best to shoot the innocent when unable to lock up the real criminals who steal entire songs and often profit from doing so - online, downloads, sharing...etc, etc. It reminds me of inept police who go after soft targets only.

What I find mindblowing is that I can arrive at my local pub each Friday night and be PAID to sing an endless arrangement of Beatles'songs or Van Morrison numbers, thereby earning a living, and not have to pay anyone a cent.

How does quoting a few lines in a novel disadvantage the songwriter in any way? In fact it could be seen as a form of free advertising.

This alongside the reality that lawyers from the music business will pounce on anyone who even quotes one line from a song in any publised book, simply defies logic.

The novel I have written is probably going to inspire people to listen to the Leonard Cohen songs and others I have quoted as an introduction to each chapter. I think the music industry should be challenged on this. Winston Churchill wrote for pleasure and for profit also - if I quote him all that is needed is recognition at the end of the quote (as long as it is a small fraction of the total word count of my writing.

What gives the music business the right to demand money when their writers are quoted and given credit?

Surely there are others who would like to challenge this? If so please email me:

11:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have also written a manuscript and am have amajor rewrite to do if I cant use lyrics. The confusing thing is that I found the lyrics on a variety of web sites like I cant believe that they are paying for the use of the lyrics but they are clearly making money on the site. Is what they are doing illegal or is there a way round all this

12:32 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

You're right - there are websites that reproduce song lyrics, and in most cases they are breaking the law. However, they get away with it because they are not commercial enterprises and the songwriters/publishers don't feel it's worth the hassle of prosecuting them

As an author, you're in a different position. If your book sells well, it will make money for you. And if that's the case, and you quote song lyrics in the book, it's very likely that sooner or later legal action will be taken against you.

The basic message in my post still applies. While it's OK to mention a song title, if you quote some of the lyrics as well, you will almost certainly be in breach of copyright law, and could face the threat of legal action. Sorry!

1:05 PM  
Blogger mpcotter9751 said...

Yes, but what about Fair Use? As I understand it, you can quote from a book under the Fair Use Law if the quote is small (like a paragraph or less) without paying a fee. So why not a song? Also, any song from 1922 or earlier is considered Public Domain and can be used freely in a text. I have contacted ASCAP and BMG Music for permission to quote the lyrics from on eof their songs, but I've been misdirected several times and my phone calls unreturned.

5:33 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

The problem with attempting to use the Fair Use exception is that songs are, by their very nature, much shorter than books.

Even if you only quote a couple of lines of a song, it could easily represent 10% or more of the total content. The US Copyright Act of 1976 stares that "the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole" is one of the tests that will be used to decide whether any particular case is "Fair Use" or not.

Obviously, if you're feeling lucky, there is nothing to stop you trying it. However, both copyright law and custom and practice suggest you would be unlikely to succeed in the courts with this defence. And the music publishers do tend to pursue such breaches quite vigorously.

I should also add that the Fair Use exception allows limited quotes to be reproduced free of charge primarily for review and scholarship and other not-for-profit purposes. It's unlikely that quoting a song lyric in a novel would fall into this non-profit category. See this Wikipedia article for further discussion of these points:

Bottom line: you can, of course, go ahead anyway and quote the Fair Use exception if challenged. However, my personal view (and I'm not a lawyer, just a writer with an interest in this subject) is that you would be very unlikely to succeed with such a defence, and could wind up with a very expensive judgment against you.

11:19 AM  
Blogger mpcotter9751 said...

Thank you, Nick. That is very helpful.

4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. I am trying to write my first novel and wanted to use the name of song. Was nto sure if I could do that without getting permission. Thanks for the information. Now I know that I can use the name just not the lyrics. Thanks again.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

No problem. Yes, just using the name of a song shouldn't present any problem unless you quote the lyrics as well.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, how does one go about obtaining permission or at least getting a price quote? I want to use Beatles lyrics and think it's too important to leave out. How do I find the person that would grant permission?

2:13 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I'm sorry I don't have an easy answer to this. You would need to contact the copyright department of the relevant music publisher. I seem to recall that some years ago Michael Jackson bought the rights in many of the Beatles' songs, but I don't know what the situation is now. You will have to do a bit of research online, I fear - unless any other reader of this blog happens to know?

4:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What about "Fair Use" laws? And why are we not CHARGING the songwriters for advertising if we make a reference to their work?
At any rate, thanks for this clarity. Now I've got to go back and re-write a couple of lines AND the ENDING of 'The Flying Game'. Damn.

6:34 PM  
Anonymous OR Melling said...

For anyone complaining about copyright law, are you not aware that it protects you and your intellectual property? As for 'free advertising,' you can die of exposure ... Just sayin'. ps your 'speaker' check is utterly garbled.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Sarah Floyd said...

I just finished drafting a new picture book, and one line is a refrain that repeats after every stanza. It is almost exactly the same as the refrain from a song my elementary school music teacher wrote. Other than that, the "story" of the song is different. It's as if I'm using "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way..." but then everything else is different except the snow setting and a horse with a jingly harness.

The refrain I am using is from a song that was written around forty years ago and was likely typed up for student songbooks. The man who wrote it has passed away, so I can't ask his permission, but he has adult children who might recognize the refrain. I would not want to do anything unethical, but I would rather not contact them if it's a non-issue.

Any guidance on this would be much appreciated!

10:34 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I'm sorry I can't give you a definitive answer to this. My (non-legally trained) opinion is that you would probably be OK, but if it ever came to court the lawyers would have to fight it out!

If I were you, I would do everything I can to ensure that the words are as different as possible from the original. The greater the similarity, it seems to me, the greater is the risk that you will be challenged (although it is still probably quite a low risk).

Any other opinions are welcome, of course!

5:23 PM  
Blogger Gret said...

Hi Nick! Thank you for this valuable information. I actually used a lot of songs as well as their lyrics in my novel. Luckily, I found out about this boook on wattpad that says if you want to quote lyrics of a song, ask for a permission first. When I did my research, it's indeed very expensive to quote lyrics. Therefore, I scrapped all of them. So I only refer use their title and sometimes, the artist name just like what you have given as an example about the Beatles' song. Thanks a lot!

9:21 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

No problem. Yes, quoting song lyrics can be very expensive. It's something to think very carefully about before doing.

12:23 PM  

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