So You Want to Use Song Lyrics in Your Novel? 5 Steps to Getting Rights to Lyrics

This week the bookosphere saw something of a teapot-storm when a formerly indie author—now signed with a Big 5 publisher—got an odd notice from Amazon. It said her readers had been asked to delete their old versions of her book and get the new Big 5 version—at the author’s expense.

It sounded like some nasty author-bullying to me—until somebody on a writing forum said the first version might have used pop song lyrics without getting proper permission.

That could definitely get a publisher's panties in a bunch. Using lyrics from a song written in the past century or so can be a very expensive proposition, so most publishers won’t accept a book that quotes lyrics.

Note: I read later on the Passive Voice that there had simply been a misunderstanding and customers who bought the original book had been sent a nice "never-mind" note.

But why would it be such a big deal if the original indie book contained a few song lyrics? Isn’t there some kind of rule that you can use a couple of lines from something without worrying about copyright?

Yup. It’s called "fair use."

Thing is: fair use doesn’t apply to songs. That’s because songs can have very few lines to use—fairly or otherwise.

So be careful you don’t make a typo and have your character step on the gas gas gas, or you might have Keith and Mick’s lawyers on your doorstep asking for their cash cash cash for using a line from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

What you CAN use without permission is a song’s title. Titles can’t be copyrighted.

That means you can say “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” but you can’t say “Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a [US term for petrol times three]", or you’re going to have to pay.

You can also use lyrics of songs that are in the public domain. Jane Friedman says you can be pretty sure something written before 1923 is OK. But some things written after that are OK, too, if the copyright wasn’t renewed. So it’s worth a check. Here are the basic rules for US copyright. A number of sites like Public Domain Review celebrate "Public Domain Day" on Jan 1 each year and give a list of new works that have come into the public domain.

But if you quote the Rolling Stones, (even if you think some of them might look as if they were born before 1923) you’re going to have to pay them.

Here’s Blake Morrison in the Guardian talking about the price of using song lyrics in his novel South of the River.

'I'd restricted myself to just a line or two from a handful of songs and vaguely hoped that was OK or that no one would notice. My editor, reasonably enough, was more cautious, and at the last minute someone from the publishing house helpfully secured the permissions on my behalf.

'I still have the invoices. For one line of "Jumpin' Jack Flash": £500. For one line of Oasis's "Wonderwall": £535. For one line of "When I'm Sixty-four": £735. For two lines of "I Shot the Sheriff" (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael's "Fastlove" came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75. A typical advance for a literary novel by a first-time author would barely meet the cost.'

Many thanks to Lexi Revellian for giving a heads-up about the Guardian article on her blog.

I totally relate to the urge to use song lyrics. My first stories relied on them heavily. My generation was all about its music, and I felt Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, and Carole King could express what my characters were feeling much better than I could.

Not that I was wrong on that. My teenaged stories were pretty bad. Luckily, I didn’t try to publish any of them. If I had, I’d have run into some big trouble.

I’m working now on a novel about Boomers set in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and I’ve solved the music problem by writing my own lyrics. I had a whole lot of fun writing a David Crosby-style folk-rock love song, “Happy Endings are Only for Fairy Tales” and a Donna Summer-style disco song, “City Girls” and a druggy hair-rock anthem, “Bored as Hell.”

I can’t tell you how much it pleased me when my editor told me I’d have to get permission to use them.

But what if you’re telling a story that absolutely requires the use of real lyrics? Say a book set at Woodstock?

Michael Murphy faced that when he wrote Goodbye Emily, his Boomer Lit novel about three sixty-something Boomers returning to Woodstock to revisit their experiences at the iconic rock concert. (Isn't that the perfect cover for a return-to-Woodstock story?)

He says he found some lyrics aren’t as expensive as the ones Blake Morrison mentioned, and it isn't that hard to get permission. Lyricists are our fellow writers and they deserve to get paid too. (And don’t forget you need permission to use recorded music in your book trailer—even if the music is in the public domain—because musicians deserve to be paid as well.)

You just have to know how to do it.

So here’s how:

Five Steps to Obtain Song Lyric Rightsby Michael Murphy

Music was important to the story of my recently released return-to -Woodstock novel, Goodbye Emily. I would not have been able to express what I wanted to in the novel without using certain song lyrics. Lyrics can enhance a novel, but as an author you need to determine whether you’re willing to pay a price to reprint another person’s work

I’d obtained permission twice before in my earlier novels, Try and Catch the Wind and Ramblin’ Man, so I knew how to get started. If you’ve not made your way through this process, obtaining lyric reprint rights might sound like a daunting task. It doesn’t have to be. Here are five steps that should simplify the process.

Step 1. Confirm your song title. The rights to song lyrics are usually owned by the song’s publisher. To identify and locate the publisher you’ll need the actual title, the writer, and the recording artist.

Step 2. Locate the publisher. If you’re not certain of the publisher, there are two general sources where the information can be obtained ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

If ASCAP doesn’t have the rights, BMI, Broadcast Music Inc, should.

ASCAP and BMI have searchable databases where you can obtain the name of the publisher by entering the title and artist.

Step 3.  Contact the publisher. Most publishers have websites including information on how to contact them when you’re seeking permission to use the song lyric. This is usually through direct email or an online form.

Step 4. Provide additional information. Once the publisher replies, they will ask several questions such as how many books will be printed or sold, the name of the novel, author, publisher and where the territory where the book will be sold. You may even be asked to provide copies of pages where the lyric will appear.

Step 5. Decide if you can afford it. Once the publisher considers the information, they will quote you a price. If the amount is within your budget and you pay the amount, they will send a letter/document confirming they are granting you permission to use the song lyric. I found the cost to use song lyrics in Goodbye Emily to be reasonable.

If you’re planning to use music for a book trailer, or your website, you must obtain what’s called synchronization rights which may be owned by the publisher or a different publisher. A separate but similar process is followed to obtain synchronization rights. The cost is often on an annual basis.

I hope these five steps have been helpful. Using song lyrics in a novel is an author’s artistic decision, but the process is not as complicated or expensive as many authors believe.

Goodbye Emily is Michael Murphy's eighth novel. A full time author and part time urban chicken rancher, Michael lives in Arizona with his wife of forty years, two cats, four dogs and five chickens who produce a steady supply of cholesterol. Read more about his novels and Woodstock at his website. (And his endorsements from both Wavy Gravy and Country Joe McDonald.)

What about you, scriveners? Have you used lyrics in your fiction or memoir? Did you know you had to get permission to quote even a few words? Have you ever written fake lyrics the way I did? 


I’m adding here a comment we got from historical novelist Sarah Sundin  that answers some of the questions we’ve been getting in the comments. The price of the permission varies by how much you’re expected to make from the book. If your book sells more than expected, you’ll be hit with one of those bills like the one Blake Morrison quotes.

If you hit the jackpot the way Sarah did, you have to renegotiate, which is why many traditional publishers have a total ban on using lyrics (unless you write them yourself.)

Here’s Sarah: ”I used copyrighted song lyrics in my first two WWII novels. While I found the permission process relatively easy and not terribly expensive ($75-$100), I encountered problems later.

First of all, my permission agreement specified a certain number of copies. When I found out my novel had gone into a second printing (yay!) and had exceeded that amount, I had to re-contact the publishers (and some had changed), obtain new permissions, and pay new fees. One of the song publishers wrote me a snippy email saying I had to obtain permission from THEM before my book publisher printed more copies. As if they'd told me beforehand!

Second, I almost lost out on some excellent opportunities. When my publisher went into negotiations for large-print, book club, and foreign language editions, the publishers balked when they saw the lyrics. At that point, they would take over responsibility, have to obtain more permissions, and pay the fees. We pacified them by removing the lyrics and editing around them.

Moral: I will NEVER use copyrighted lyrics in a novel again.”

Thanks so much, Sarah, for the additional information!

UPDATE #2 (March 2015)

If you REALLY need those lyrics, attorney Helen Sedwick has some great information on Joel Friedlander's blog telling how to find the song's publisher. There's even a template for a letter to write to ask the publisher for permission to use lyrics. How to Use Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune for a Lawyer.

UPDATE #3 (October 2015)

Author David Hewson has a chilling report on his experience trying to get lyrics for his book. In his Medium piece Never Quote a Rock Lyric in your Book Unless You're Rich, he says three words from the Rolling Stones would have cost him over 1000 pounds. Read the whole post it's enlightening.

His advice: "If you really must have epigraphs in your book here’s a tip: unless you really don’t care about the money pick dead people out of copyright. Makes life a lot easier.

Or actually… just ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this at all?’ Will the book be improved by their omission? Is there really someone out there who’s going to read it and think, ‘You know if only this guy had stuck in a couple of lines from the Peter Gabriel era Genesis this thing would have been so much better?’

Second tip: the answer’s no. 


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