How to Use Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer

by | Mar 27, 2015

By Helen Sedwick

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.

tbd bab 90 days

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
  • publisher
  • 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.

Topics like this, and more, covered in our weekly coaching sessions inside our LIVE student groups.

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  1. James Moser

    I bought this short book on “Memorable Lyrics” because it sounded good for $1.00 to add to my collection of Fiction Writers and Songwriters resource books. I am glad I did.
    The information was very helpful. I was so impressed, I bought her second book on “Memorable Images.” Now That 22 pages was FULL of information and several links to sites every writer, “Indie or Traditional” should have.

  2. Lea Fisher

    I’m writing an story set in an alternate universe where French and English have crashed into each other. If I “translate” lyrics into a fake language that would still look recognizable to anyone with a little knowledge of Romance languages or the ability to use Google Translate, is that covered as a transformative work? There would still be recognizable English and French structure (not like rewriting ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in Tolkien’s Elvish – although that would be another interesting question), just hybridized and weird. Trying to work out if this is worth doing to introduce people to the language or too expensive.

  3. Helen Sedwick

    BY, Using a distinctive lyric as a business name (a trademark) is risky. It won’t be considered fair use. You can reduce the risk by keeping the borrower phrase short. And there is less risk if the phrase is commonly used in other contexts.

  4. Helen Sedwick

    Penny, Incorporating rock lyrics into new original works of art sounds like a classic example of fair use. But no one, other than a judge in a infringement case, can say for sure. The safer route would be to get permission.

    • Anne ng

      What considered public domain? What if I do customed calligraphy and it involved the lyric? Not mass production or printing anything . All hand drawn. Is it ok?

  5. BY

    Great & informative article! Do I need to get copyright permission for using a lyrical phrase from a 90’s song as the name of my business? Thx in advance.

  6. Penny G.

    I’m an artist and I want to use some famous rock songs lyrics on my paintings and creations for commercial use.
    Is it possible to do it or I do still need to get permission for that?

  7. Barry Foster

    As I understand it, the copyright goes on for 70 years past death – so you can use the lyrics from anyone who (currently) died in 1950.
    I can’t be the only person who thinks that copyright should only be applied if the person is still alive! It grates me that descendants who didn’t even know the person (weren’t even born) are allowed to benefit from a distant family member’s work. If I write a song, then I should get all the financial benefits from that while I’m still here. But when I’m gone, my rights to get money from those lyrics should die with me. Isn’t it enough for my wife that she gets all the money I made, anyway? Why should she carry on getting that money for decades, and then my children, and my grandchildren whom I never even knew of? In my opinion, it’s all wrong.

  8. Helen Sedwick

    I should have said David — Using lyrics under copyright for commercial purposes would be infringement. You would need permission. You should consult with an intellectual copyright attorney or a copyright clearance service provider.

  9. Helen Sedwick

    Tony, Using lyrics under copytight for commercial purposes would be infringement. You would need permission. You should consult with an intellectual copyright attorney or a copyright clearance service provider.

  10. Helen Sedwick

    Peggy (and others), anytime you are using a recognizable part of lyrics, you run a risk. Under the doctrine of Fair Use, the less you use, the better; the more you change the original words, the better. And if the words are generic, there is little risk because the writer of the lyrics can’t claim a copyright on something like ‘I love you” or ‘she left me for …”

  11. David Baum

    Hi Helen,

    Thank you very much for the article.

    I am investigating a business idea which would require the use of rock lyrics for commercial use. Whom do I contact regarding the lyrics only?

  12. Tony

    Thank you for your article and for taking the time to respond to reader’s posts. What if you’re quoting only three words from a song? Would that still count as copyright infringement?

    • Barry Foster

      I’m no expert, but I’d say definitely not! Those three words, whatever they are, must be written every day across the world!

  13. Peggy Clark

    Thank you for all this helpful information! My question is about using a line from a song (actually part of a line) on a meme for social media. I had an idea for a meme that would be based off a movie with a few song titles and a few partial lines from songs from the movie. If not a meme, can you put something like that just as a post on social media?

  14. Guy Giard Giard

    Wow, thank you
    You saved my book and lots of aggravation!
    I’m aiming for international distribution, so this was going to be an even bigger headache!

    I will keep the titles and artist names, but get rid of the lyrics!

    Thank you for answering to the comments up to date!!

    Have a great day! Guy

    • Guy Giard Giard

      Ps I forgot
      Is ‘Happy birthday’ safe now?

      Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you!

      or better to use Happy birthday to Guy, happy birthday to Guy!! Kind of??

      Thank you


      • Helen Sedwick

        Yes, Happy Birthday is in the public domain and you may use it without permission.

  15. Gordon Vanstone

    Hi Helen,

    Your article was extremely helpful as well as the ongoing Q&A below. I’ve been shopping a manuscript around and realize after some research that I erroneously quoted snippets of lyrics in about 5 places. In some cases, I’ve just deleted and said the song title and artist, and if the reader wants to investigate the deeper meaning in the reference (that would be great), they can look up the lyrics.
    In a few remaining cases, I feel like the lyrics help the flow of the prose, and bring it to life a bit more. So just mentioning the title wouldn’t have the desired effect. In these cases, I’ve seen a number of people mention changing the words of the song, which I like as a work around.
    My question is: If you reference the artist and song, then change the lyrics, is this going to make it more susceptible to copyright infringement, then if you just introduce the altered lyrics?

    Here’s my example:
    Originally I had:
    ” My hammy gestures that afternoon were obviously tailor-made for The Police’s, ‘Message in a Bottle.’ I’d heave the Awamori bottle over the rail watching it fall to the tempestuous waters below as Sting croons, ‘A hundred billion castaways…Looking for a home… I’ll send an SOS to the world…’ ”
    (Using short sections of the lyric verbatim, so thanks to you an the posts here I know that this isn’t going to cut it to get me around needing permissions)

    The Changed version:
    ” ….watching it fall to the tempestuous waters below as Sting croons from the back of my mind, ‘We’re all just castaways…hmm, hmm, hm, hm…adrift on seas…bottle, bottle bottle… sendin’ off this hm, hm, hmm…’ ”

    So by alluding to the song and artist but then purposefully skewing the lyrics, could I get away with using, but not having to seek permission and pay?
    I know in many cases you mention it depends on the lawyers, judge and jury, but it there a safe enough distance so that it never gets there:)?

    Thanks Very much again for this excellent post. I’ve seen others address the question but not as practically as your article.

  16. Helen Sedwick

    Navjit, Melodies and musical compositions are also protected by copyright so it could be a problem. However, are you just using the cadence or rhythm are a way of structuring your test? The rhythm alone isn’t copyrightable.

  17. Navjit Sandhu

    Hi there!

    Such an informative article. Thanks for all of the info!

    I am an author of children’s illustrated books. I use rhythm and rhyme in my books. In my first book I used the tune of Frere Jacques in the telling of the story. I know that it is in public domain. So, I know there is no problem.

    My next book I would like to use the tune to “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band. Can I just use the tune without infringing on any copyright laws. I will not be using any of the words. Only the tune….


  18. AnnSu


    This’s actually a really good and easy-to-understand article. After reading this and going through all the questions asking about so many different issues using song lyrics, I feel relieved with captioning my Instagram photos or so, using a lot of catchy song lyrics now. I was about to ask about that but a lot of questions here already mention so many helpful answers, including the one related to what I was curious about.

    Thank you Helen and all the repliers!


  19. Helen Sedwick

    Charles Lawrence, Many gospel lyrics are in the public domain if they were first published before 1924. For the rest, you need to think through whether copyright protection still applies. And yes, many of those lyrics websites are violating someone’s copyright. They are often located in places where copyright law is not actively enforced. Or they rely on works that are in the public domain.

  20. Helen Sedwick

    Terry, The music is subject to copyright protection as well. Even if you change the lyrics, you need to consider who owns the rights to the musical composition,

  21. Charles Lawrence

    Hi Helen Sedwick, thanks for this article.

    I intend setting up a gospel lyrics website that will cut across all English speaking countries. Let’s say roughly about 2000 artists with millions of songs.

    How do i go about getting license for each of the songs?

    Also, does it means those lyrics sites with millions of songs have gotten license for those songs?

    Thanks for your response

  22. Terry

    What if we are using song lyrics in an ad, but changing the lyrics to make them about something else? We are obviously making reference to the music, but not lifting/using the lyrics verbatim. Is something like this permissible without expressed written consent?

  23. Helen Sedwick

    Kal, Using lyrics in a fictional work without permission is always risky. You may use the song title and artist name without permission however.

  24. Helen Sedwick

    Clare, if you are reporting on an event and report the lyrics being sung or chanted, then your use is likely to be considered fair use and be acceptable. But it’s still best to use only as much as you need. Keep it short.

  25. Helen Sedwick

    Daniel, You would need to get permission from the song writer (both lyrics and music) to publish a book using work that is still in the public domain.
    You would not need permission if the work is not in the public domain. For info about the public domain, here’s a post, but change the 1923 date to 1924.

  26. Daniel Cay

    Hello Helen

    I play the guitar for fun and have several students. I like to find songs they want to learn to play and simplify them for ease of play and key for voice range. I have developed a template for the chords and lyric and I print out my version of the song. I have very many songs that I have created in this way. They are all popular songs and all have been written by other artists. I don’t believe that any are public domain. I interpret each one musically, but the lyric is exactly as someone else has written.

    I would like to create a song book with my version of these songs to sell for profit. How should I proceed so as not to infringe or break the law? Any advice you can offer would be appreciated.

    Oh, also, I have done this with Christmas songs as well. Do these songs get treated differently since they were written so long ago? And what about those that were written more recently like “Feliz Navidad” or “Mary Did You Know?” Thanks for your help.


  27. Kal

    What if a character (fictional) is dancing to a song, could the lyrics be quoted? Like a character is at a recital and the song chosen is, perhaps, a John Lennon song? Could one use the lyrics?

  28. claire

    What about if one is writing in fiction about people singing lyrics in a non-fictional setting. For example, a fictional story that is at a protest rally in DC in 1969 where the protesters actually sang, “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” (lyrics of a John Lennon song)?

  29. Helen Sedwick

    Bert, You may use a story or character inspired by a song, so long as that character is not so developed as to a trademark. For example, Homer Simpson, Micky Mouse, etc. If that were to case, then use the inspiration, but change the name and identifying features.

  30. Bert Edens

    What are your thoughts as far as stories inspired by songs without actually quoting lyrics? For example, if I wanted to write a short story inspired by, say, Bob Dylan’s “Corrina, Corrina”, but not actually quote any lyrics (other than referencing her name, which is in the title anyway) and use the story of the song as an inspiration to tell more about Corrina. Is that a fair use claim? Or is that still stepping on their intellectual property? Or diving deeper into the “All Along The Watchtower” story without quoting the lyrics. All along, obviously, being up front about the story being inspired by Bob Dylan’s lyrics (or whoever). Just telling stories in that universe without using actual lyrics. Thoughts?

    Thanks for your time!



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