Whenever I speak at a conference, I ask who uses lyrics in their writing. Without fail, hands go up, including my own.
Lyrics are a quick way to communicate setting or reveal character. A Sinatra ballad evokes wartime romance while Grateful Dead ramblings transport readers to a smoky love-in. When I explain that using lyrics may be copyright infringement, an audible groan fills the room.
Lyrics are intellectual property, like text and images. If you use someone’s property without permission, whether it’s a car, a bicycle, or the words to a popular tune, you are violating their property rights.
Using lyrics is particularly risky, not because they are special in the eyes of the law, but because they are owned by music companies that aggressively protect their rights. You could get a lawyer letter demanding you “cease and desist” using the lyrics. Translation–shred every copy of your book, even though the infringing words are 25 out of 95,000. Worse, you could be liable for monetary damages.
Writers tell me I am overreacting. If a book sells a few hundred copies, who’s going to know or care? But that’s planning for failure. What if your book takes off and you sell 10,000 copies, 100,000 copies? This is one case where it is cheaper to get permission than to ask forgiveness.
The cost of getting permission to use lyrics in self-published books is often affordable, typically between $10 and $50. Now that won’t get you permission to use lyrics from Jumpin’ Jack Flash or Eleanor Rigby, but it is likely to cover many Sinatra ballads.
How to get permission?
Suppose you want to quote lyrics from Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow written by Carole King and Gerald Goffin. You might be tempted to contact the songwriters directly through Carole King’s website. Don’t.
Typically songwriters do not handle the licensing of their songs. They assign or license their songs to music publishers that manage the process and collect royalties.
To identify the music publisher, check the sheet music for the song for a copyright notice. It should be in the name of the music publisher. Then check the publisher’s website for information on how to obtain permissions. I have attached a sample permission request letter at the end of the post.
If you can’t find the sheet music, or the publisher is no longer in business, try the two largest music publishers:
- Hal Leonard Corporation handles songs by thousands of artists including the BeeGees, Irving Berlin, Johnny Cash, Henry Mancini. Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Walt Disney.
- Alfred Music Publishing represents hundreds of music publishers and songwriters, such as Bruce Springsteen, United Artists, MGM and various movie studios.
The search capabilities on these sites are far from perfect, and you may not be able to find the song you have in mind. It costs nothing to email these sites or fill in their online forms asking for permission. If they don’t handle the song, they will let you know.
Before you fill out the online forms, you’ll need the following information:
- book title
- publication date
- the excerpt and/or complete lyrics as they are to appear in your publication
- the territory of distribution
- suggested retail price
- and number of copies to be printed
You’ll have to make a judgment call here. If you ask for permission to print 100,000 copies, then the license fee will be higher than if you request permission to print 1000 copies. Ask for a reasonable amount.
Although the sites say it may take four to six weeks to receive a response, I usually hear back from them within two weeks.
If these sites do not work, then you may be able to find the publisher by searching the data bases of ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and in Canada, SOCAN. These are performing rights societies that manage the licensing of recorded music on behalf of the recording artists, but they also provide the contact information (and often a link) to music publishers.
You may need to search all four sites because a performer may be registered with one company and not others. And many songs have various co-writers and multiple music publishers, and you will need permission from all of them.
Let’s walk through a couple searches.
A friend of mine is writing a novel in which the main character is obsessed with Frank Sinatra songs. She asked me how to get permission to use a few lines from I Get A Kick Out Of You.
We searched the title on both BMI and SESAC and found nothing. On ASCAP, we searched Frank Sinatra, found several pages listing his recordings and clicked on I Get A Kick Out Of You. The next page showed the writer (Cole Porter) and the publisher (Warner Brothers Music). We clicked on Warner Brothers and a dropdown gave us the address and email contact information.
Let’s return to Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. A search of ASCAP and SESAC turned up nothing. On BMI and SOCAN we found the publisher, Screen Gems-EMI. We clicked on the publisher’s name and got the contact information.
Don’t be surprised if many of these publishers send you to back to Hal Leonard or Alfred Music to handle your request, which is why I recommend starting there.
If all this searching and paying is more than you want to deal with, your alternatives are:
- Use the song title and artist’s name only.
Titles and names are not protected by copyright, so you may use them without permission except as part of your own book title or on your book cover. That raises trademark and publicity problems.
- Write your own lyrics.
Go for it! You may discover a new talent.
- Use lyrics in the public domain.
Any work in the public domain is free to use without permission or compensation. You should, however, always give credit to the original creator out of respect and to avoid plagiarism.
Any song first published or recorded in the United States before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain. This includes many rag time and early blues songs, such as:
- Take Me Out To the Ball Game by Ed Meeker
- Swing Low Sweet Chariot
- Jelly Roll Blues by Jelly Roll Martin
- Claim fair use.
Fair use is copying of copyrighted material for a limited purpose, such as education, commentary or criticism, or for a “transformative” purpose such as parody. Here’s one of the best posts out there about fair use, What Every Writer Ought to Know about Fair Use and Copyright.
For example, if you quote lyrics from Bob Dylan and Emmine to compare their treatment of women, that may be fair use. But using the same lyrics to evoke a time or reveal something about your character is not fair use and could be infringement.
The line between fair use and infringement is murky. Much depends on the facts of the case. Giving credit does not make a difference—you could be infringing even if you are not plagiarizing.
Unless you are reasonably confident your use is fair use, don’t rely on it. Even if you are well within safe lines, the copyright owner might sue. Think of the attorneys’ fees and the time involved. While I admire those who take on David-and-Goliath battles, I’d rather spend my time and energy writing.
Ready to get permission? Here is a sample permission letter.
Dear _______ [the music publisher or other rights holder]:
I am writing to ask permission to reprint _______ [identify actual lyrics, song and songwriter(s)] on a non-exclusive basis in _______ [describe intended use, such as within text of book, on a website and/or blog post, etc.].
I believe that you are the holder or administrator/publisher of the copyright in these lyrics. If not, I would greatly appreciate any help you can provide to help me locate the current rights holder or administrator/publisher.
[Describe your project, such as a traditionally published book, self-published book, a memoir, etc. If educational, explain how. Show your passion for your project. ]
My first run printing will be _____ copies. /OR/ I will be distributing the print book through a print-on-demand provider. I request permission to print up to _____ books. I will also be distributing an e-book. The anticipated price of the book is $_____ and the price of the e-book will be $_____, although I may discount those prices.
I am distributing the book in English, [mention any other languages] in the world-wide market.
I will also use the lyrics on my website and blog. [Describe current traffic levels.] I do/do not post third-party advertising on my website.
I would use the lyrics starting on _______ [date] with no known end date.
I would be happy to provide you copies for approval and upon distribution.
Please let me know if you may grant the permissions outlined above as well as the license fees involved.
Thank you for your attention to my request.
[Your name, contact info, website, social media links, and anything else that demonstrates who you are and your vision.]
Helen Sedwick, is a Contributing Writer for The Book Designer. She is also an author and a California attorney with thirty years of experience representing businesses and entrepreneurs. Her latest book is Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook: The Step-by-Step Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing.
You can find more information about Helen here.
Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.