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.

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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.

Alternatives

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.

Sincerely,

[Your name, contact info, website, social media links, and anything else that demonstrates who you are and your vision.]

Sedwick.Headshot

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.
 

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241 Comments

  1. T

    Great article. I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding websites/blogs. I am starting a blog, and for the domain name, it’s a phrase (literally 4 words) inspired from Hamilton the musical…and it got me wondering if that was bad. We already bought the name, but wondering if we should get permissions?

    Reply
    • T

      Just to add, we selected that phrase, because we felt like the deeper meaning beyond/behind it exemplified our purpose to the blog. (True self/mental health).

      Reply
  2. Helen Sedwick

    Plus, your use of the phrase as part of a new work could be considered fair use. Another factor in your favor.

    Reply
  3. Helen Sedwick

    Pedro, Yes, technically you should get permission, but I doubt anyone will know or care about an unpaid, brief performance using a short phrase.

    Reply
  4. pedro hernandez

    I’m working on a poem to perform at an open mic night and would like to start with lyrics from the song under pressure by queen it’s not for profit less than 30 words and takes 15 seconds to say would I be able to use these lyrics or would it be copyright infringement

    Reply
  5. Death

    Thank you so much, this was very helpful.

    Reply
  6. Ai Wei

    Hi Helen,

    thank you so much for your thorough and insightful article, I learned a lot from it. I am just wondering, if I quote a few lines, maybe one or two, from a song, in my book as a caption for original art that my friends and I produce authentically, would I still need to seek permission from the music companies?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Ai, It’s always safer to get permission. The owner of the rights might demand that you stop using them, or they might not know or care. It’s a risk, probably a small one. But you’ll have to decide whether you are comfortable with that.

      Reply
  7. Mark

    So all this makes me wonder about public performance rights, not just to the song, but the display of lyrics.
    Say, for instance, you want to start a karaoke company. Now, my understanding is that the music it self would be covered by the venue’s BMI/ASCAP agreements, but the display of lyrics in a public performance setting would not.
    How would one go about getting performance rights to display lyric content such as this?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Mark, I am sure you’ll need a license from the music publisher to display written lyrics in this way. You should contact the publisher and describe your intended use.

      Reply
      • Mark

        Yes, there is little doubt that a performance license would be required, but the question is, if one were to do this on a commercial scale, how would one begin.
        I suspect most current concerns that publicly display lyrics have never gone through legitimate licensing.

        Reply
        • Helen Sedwick

          Mark, Don’t be so sure they haven’t obtained licenses. All it would take is one infringement lawsuit and the commercial enterprise could lose all its profits.

          Reply
  8. David Lightfoot

    Hi Helen.

    Really interesting article, and this makes me think of the novel I’m currently working on, a five-book saga where the cartoon and comic book heroes get their own saga. In my third book, “Every Breath You Take,” one of my protagonists, Grace Fromberg, aspires to be a singer with the intention of donating a portion of her earnings (album sales, concert ticket sales, etc.) to cystic fibrosis research and awareness. In one scene, she is making videos of herself singing songs from her influential artists, two of them being ABBA and Roxette. I have quoted one line each from “Does Your Mother Know” and “Joyride,” respectively, even describing her singing that song in the latter.

    I am putting the story on FictionPress and (wisely) mentioned that these songs don’t belong to me, they belong to the respected artists and songwriters. Do I still need to get permission from the music publishers for use of these songs for when I want to publish the novel?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      David, It’s always safer to get permission. The owner of the rights might demand that you stop using them, or they might not know or care. It’s a risk, probably a small one. But you’ll have to decide whether you are comfortable with that.

      Reply
  9. Mike Fontenot

    Wow! Got my hopes up when I first read this post. $10 – $50 per request – seems more than reasonable. Then I saw that the original article was posted three years ago… (awww… rats!) :-)

    I recently tried to follow the rules, and use the process, and this is the response I got – $99 bucks later. Now granted, I did try to use a ‘third party’… which could have been my error.

    Subject: Re: Checking In
    From: Aaron Green <[email protected]>
    Date: Mon, May 07, 2018 1:23 pm
    To: [email protected]

    Hi Mike, I hope you’re having a good May so far. I wanted to let you know that I’ve been chasing these print license requests, and the Hal Leonard representative who is working on these requests emailed back just now warning that each song will carry a minimum of $390 per song ($300 royalties/song + $90 administrative/song), and if this works for your budget I can try to keep this min rate intact. $390 x 9 songs = $3510.00. She still needs to get all official approvals, but she wanted to screen this first (once again HL moves incredibly slow, my apologies).

    If this does not work for your budget, please let me know and if you want me to communicate any cuts, I can certainly do that.

    Thanks again for your patience on this.

    -Aaron

    The interesting thing is that in three of the instances, I asked to use A SINGLE LINE OF LYRICS. (5-7 words)

    So… did I get had by the third party… maybe?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Mike, I’ve heard that Hal Leonard has imposed this minimum charge. I think it’s a bad business decision on their part. They’ve priced the rights too high. They would probably make more sales and more money if they priced the rights at something like $25 to $50.
      I hope they come to their sense.

      Reply
  10. Tastywallet

    Thank you for your post! Through the links you provided, I was able to contact all the publishers who control content to lyrics I post on my website for review. Two of the major publishers granted me permission to their entire library of lyrics to post on my website free of charge!

    I have a question. Assuming that I run across a writer not associated with a publishing group, how would I know if I need to contact them separately? Is this something the publishers can tell me?

    -TastyWallet

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      TastyWallet, Good question. If you have any question whether a publisher has the right to grant you permission, or if a publisher simply does not respond, then it would be a good idea to contact the original artist. He or she should be able to tell you who to contact.

      Reply
      • Tastywallet

        That’s what I thought, thanks!

        Reply
  11. Mark

    Hi. Great article, many thanks. My question is can I use the title of a song, Alone Again Or, as the title of my poem? I’m an amateur writer and if it ever gets published, I’m unlikely to make any money from it, if that makes any difference. The song lyrics have significance to me and the subject of the poem, but none of the lyrics are used. Thanks in advance for any replies.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      You may use the title for your poem. Titles are not protected by copyright. Sometimes very famous titles, Like The Da VInce Code, are protected by trademarks, but that is relatively rare.

      Reply
      • Mark

        Thank you very much!

        Reply
  12. Eric

    Thank you for your thorough article.

    I am looking to create a shirt brand and vlog with the intention of inspiring others and separately promote understanding among those in our divided nation.

    Some of the messages I want to use are song lyrics, quotes from interviews I’ve seen/heard, or parts of speeches. Some of the sources are recent while others are decades old.

    Assuming this overall concern is valid given the different media, can fair use apply to the vlogs since I’m using them as a basis for making a point to the public? Does fair use apply to the shirts given the founding intent is the benefit of others? Can I advertise the shirts and wait for demand to generate before getting permission if needed?

    Thank you,
    Eric

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Eric, If you use short phrases created by others for purposes of commentary, criticism, education, etc. then that may qualify as fair use. I can’t say whether your use is fair use. So much depends on the context.
      However, selling t-shirts with quotes by others is not likely to be considered fair use. It’s too commercial.

      Reply
  13. Rita Thurman

    Hello! Your information has been the easiest to understand thus far but my question Is, if I want to give a copy of a lyrics printed out on a sheet of paper as a gift at a church retreat with the composer/artist name listed, Is that illegal?
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Rita, Handing out copies of lyrics for free at a religious/educational retreat that isn’t be run for profit is most likely permitted as fair use unless the number of copies given out is large, let’s say thousands or even hundred of copies.

      Reply
  14. Elan

    Hi Helen,

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write such an informative article– it is extremely helpful. I have a situation about which I’m not sure what to do and was hoping you might be able to provide some advice. I’ve written a short story comedy in which four lines from the Elvis Presley song “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” are integral to the ending. I plan to submit the story first to a competition in which first, second, and third prize winners have their stories published in a book and receive $1000, $500, and $250, respectively. That’s a long shot and, realistically, if the story fails to win the competition, I would like to try submitting it to several different magazines and see if one of them is interested. My questions are as follows:

    1) Would it be problematic to request permission to use the lines in a story being entered in a competition?

    2) I don’t know the number of copies of the book that would be printed, though it is the largest and best-known competition in its genre.

    3) Would it be possible to request permission to use the lines if the story were submitted to both the competition and a number of magazines? Or is this going to be too complicated?

    4) Concerning the magazines, again, this might require several submissions before I receive an acceptance. Further, in most cases I would probably receive between $100 to $200 for the story and the number of copies published could vary widely. In many cases, I don’t know if it would even be possible to identify that number. Would all these variables be a problem when making a request to the lines from the lyrics?

    I hope my questions aren’t too burdensome. I thank you in advance for any assistance you might be able to provide.

    Elan

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Elan, I think there is low risk in using the lyrics in stories submitted to contests. If you move on to publications, then the risk increases and it would be prudent to try to get permission.

      Reply
  15. Jamie

    Hi,
    I would like to use a title that is based on lyrics from a song but I want to change one word to suit the story. The novel has nothing in common with the song or the band. Would this be an infringement of copyright law?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      It depends on the lyrics and how much you change. For instance, how unique are the original lyrics and does your change still evoke the original? Is it a parody of the original?

      Reply
  16. Angy Zacarias

    I have a question, I tend to write mostly in Spanish, and right now I am writing my first full-length story in that language, and in my story, I do mention/quote lyrics of Spanish songs. In this case, I guess I should follow the same protocol and ask for permission. If so, should I contact the record company/artist/manager?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Yes, the process is the same for musical works owned by US artists and recording companies. If the music was created and recorded in another country, then you may have to research ownership in that country. But start with the process I describe above.

      Reply
  17. Luthra

    I am planning to publish 4O0 copies of a poetry book by a crowdfunding on a non profit basis In this I want to print the texts of couple of songs by the Beatles and Bob Dylan as if they are poems

    I want to also use a speech by Martin Luther King I have a dream

    What is the best way of approaching this

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Luthra, Even if your project is non-profit, you should not quote large portions of songs or speeches without getting permission from the copyright owner. Your use could still be considered infringing unless you get permission. And I fear that getting this permission could be quite expensive.
      I have a download on the Resources page of my website that will help you with the process of getting permission to use lyrics. For Dr. King’s speeches, you should start here. http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive-terms-conditions

      Reply
  18. C. Payne

    If I am going to look for a publisher for my novel, and don’t know how many copies of the book are going to be printed, should I wait to get permission for the use of lyrics (there is only one lyric I quote)? Is this ever something a publisher handles?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      C. Payne, If a traditional publisher is interested in your work, they may work with you to get permission. But ultimately, it will be up to you to get permission.
      Typically, I suggest people ask for permission to sell 1000 print and 5000 ebook copies. If your sales look like they will exceed that, you can go back and ask for more.

      Reply
  19. Amen Kush

    Hi Thanks for your great article.
    What are your thoughts on the way I used it for a book. I used some lyrics as the intro to a chapter. See example in link.

    https://www.ajkush.com/sample/

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Amen, Using lyrics to open a chapter, to set a scene, or to establish a character is very tempting. Often, writers use lyrics as a short-cut to avoid having to come up their own words. And, they fear their own words will not be as powerful.
      But think about it — you are using someone else’s words because of their impact. You are borrowing their creative magic. So technically, you are using the lyrics in a way that requires permission.
      Now, no one may care enough to bother coming after you for it, but technically you should get permission

      Reply
  20. Melvin

    Hi Helen I have a question it kinda wired so I hope you can answer me as soon as possible.
    I keep seeing song lyric pranks on the internet. I was wondering is it illegal to text or chat or write song lyrics to a friend? Because I wanted to know I hope you can help thank you.

    Reply
    • Melvin

      I meant to say werid.*

      Reply
      • Helen Sedwick

        Melvin, Using lyrics in private correspondence is not a problem since it’s not “publishing” and it likely not “commercial.”
        It’s publishing the lyrics that may be infringement. Publishing includes posting on a blog.

        Reply
        • Melvin

          So My question is it safe and legal to do? Thats All I want to know.

          Reply
          • Helen Sedwick

            Whether something is “legal” usually means it’s not criminal. It’s not criminal.
            By “safe” I assume you mean no one is likely to sue you. If you are using lyrics in private correspondence, I don’t see why anyone would know or care enough to sue you.

  21. L Sane

    Hello Helen,
    Can I use one to four lines of lyrics from a song on a forum as part of a comment or sharing? Do I need permission or is this considered fair use?

    All forum sharing is no longer copyrighted by those who run the site. I hold the copyright for whatever I share.

    Great site, Helen, thank you.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      L Sane, Interesting question.
      Quoting the lyrics could be considered fair use if you are using the lyrics for purposes of commentary, criticism, education, or parody. While the forum is important, the law looks at how you use work created by others, not where you use it.

      Reply
  22. Randall G Cook

    Dear Helen, This is a terrific website, I will purchase your book on legal aspects of self-publishing! My question: I intend to name my third book with a line of lyric from a huge Beatles hit song. Not the song title of course, but a very famous line. By McCartney/Lennon, and I think Sony Corp. still owns it, but I also see ASCAP and Northern Songs LTD. Would you suggest how I could use that as a book title, with proper attribution? Point me in the right direction? Many thanks!

    Reply
    • Eugenia Parrish

      Randall, I have worked with people who have published many books, mostly genre like mysteries. And the word is, and I have seen it: You cannot copyright the TITLE of a song. The lyrics are a different story, depending on how much you copy.

      Reply
  23. Lena

    I have a question: If I take most of the song’s lyrics, but change the words to different words (with close meaning or the same meaning) so the lyrics are 90% different from the original but the meaning is mostly the same with a little twist. is it still risky?
    p.s:sorry for my english, not native speaker.

    Reply
  24. Samantha

    Hi Helen!

    This is brilliant. Thank you so much. I had a short story published 20 years ago that included a few lyrics from the Peter J. Wilhousky version of “Carol of the Bells.” I mistakenly believed at the time that the lyrics were in public domain. Now I know that they’re not. However, my story has been very popular over the years. I want to reprint it in a short story collection, but I want to get a proper license. The thing is, it seems impossible to find the publisher/copyright holder of that song. I’ve tried everywhere — Alfred, Hal Leonard, BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, you name it. It seems hundreds of artists have performed and recorded the song as-is. I would think they’d gotten licenses, but maybe they didn’t? Am I being too gallant here? Should I just move forward and forget it? I honestly don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright. But this story is really important. The lyrics underscore the satire.

    Thanks in advance!

    Reply
    • Samantha

      Me, again. Could it belong to Carl Fischer LLC?

      Reply
  25. Esther James

    Hello, you have some fabulous information here, thank you! Years ago, I started a short story I titled as “Main Street” by Bob Seger. I was intrigued by the lyrics and wanted to write a short story based on the song itself. I have recently decided to pick it up, and complete the story, and would like to put it on my personal writing website at a future date. My question is…do i use the same format as asking permission to include lyrics? Incidentally, I would like to also quote a line of the lyrics as well. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Esther, excellent question. General story ideas are not protected by copyright. However, if you are closely following the details of someone’s original story, then it is wise to seek permission. As I mentioned in some of my posts, ideas are not protected by copyright, but how that idea is executed and transformed into a story can be.
      Plus, if you take the general story and add new elements and move it to a new format, your work may be considered a transformative work and therefore permitted by copyright law.
      Of course, I can’t give you a definitive yes or not in a blog comment. So much depends on the actual details.
      To be safe, it’s best to ask for permission.

      Reply
      • Esther James

        Hello,
        Thank you so much for your reply. I think I worded my question incorrectly. I am taking the song lyrics from “Main Street” (Bob Seger) and making a story based on them. That’s what I meant to say…but it seems by your reply, that to be on the safe side, I should seek permission, because I would like to keep my short story as close to the song’s storyline as possible.
        Again, thank you. How wonderful to have received a reply. I appreciate that!
        Esther

        Reply
  26. Heather O'Brien

    Hi Helen. Thank you for your article. I am re-releasing my self-published book (for the second time). Without getting into the details of why, I am curious. Between the first and second issue, I paid $200 for the rights to American Pie. Didn’t come near the threshold I paid for. That’s fine. After a revision, I’m re-releasing the book again. Nothing was revised in relation to the portions of American Pie, but I will be going back to them for this third release.

    Though I believe I know the answer, I’ll ask anyway. If I make my book an audiobook, how do I handle my lyrics permission? I’m pretty much done for, right? Totally new type of license since it’s an audio book? It clearly states in the novel that it’s Don Mclean singing, so I’d need to get permission to use the actual performance of the piece, right? Dang it. I think I just killed my ability to do an audiobook.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Heather, you are correct that you need permission that’s broad enough to include audio books. And if you are going to use a recording of the song, you need permission from the performers as well. It’s worth pursuing to see if the price is affordable. Or you can have the narrator refer to the song and artist but not play it. That may not be your first choice, but it’s better than giving up on the audio book.

      Reply
  27. Caroline Madden

    This is so helpful, thank you! I have a question, what if you paraphrase a song, or describe it? Do you still need permission?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      If you paraphrase or describe the work in your own words, that should not be considered infringement. It’s a good approach.

      Reply
  28. Stephen Barone

    I am writing a short story that I may try to get published in a literary journal. If it were to be published, I most likely will not be paid. I only want to use about ten words from the song. Do I still need permission? Will the Journal?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Stephen, There is always a risk when you use someone else’s work, but the shorter the phrase the better. There are no clear lines. While 10 words is typically considered too short to be subject to copyright protection, I can’t guarantee that the copyright owner might feel otherwise (assuming they even found out about it). You’ll have to decide how comfortable you are with taking the risk. For that reason, the Journal will have its own policy about using lyrics and legal risks.

      Reply
  29. Kirk Jockell

    Helen,

    Great article. It told me everything I needed to know about asking permission. But here’s an FYI … I just got through trying to get permission from Hal Leonard to use 15 words from the lyrics of “Like a Wrecking Ball” performed by Eric Church. Hal Leonard informs folks pretty much right up front before you submit that the minimum fee will be $300.00. I passed. As much as the lyrics help set the mood of the scene, as an indie writer/publisher, I can’t rationalize the ROI.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Kirk, It’s so disappointing to hear about the $300 minimum. I suspect they were getting more requests than they wanted to deal with. Their minimum hurts both writers and the original songwriter.

      Reply
      • Kirk Jockell

        It’s okay, Helen. I took your advise. I invented my own country star, and wrote my own damn lyrics. I just paid myself $300.00. ;-)

        Reply
        • Rea Carr

          Thank you for the idea. I’m just starting my book and was considering lyrics from “Rescue Me.” After looking at the forms which want way more info than I even have yet and reading your post, I’ll either scrap the idea or make up a new song for my book. Thank you both.

          Reply
  30. Clare

    Helen, thank you so much for your very helpful and informative article. I also got a copy of your Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook — awesome! I use the lyrics of a song in 3 chapters of my upcoming novel, and using your step-by-step info I located the copyright holder and sent them a letter similar to the one you provided above. They did request an excerpt, which I provided: I simply sent them the 3 chapters in which the lyric appears, with the actual sections of the chapters highlighted.

    Here’s their response:

    “We could agree to $100 for 1000 units and the right for you to put the lyric on your website.

    If TITLE OF MY BOOK becomes a huge success, we will renegotiate a fee for units above 1000.

    If the lyric goes into a YouTube video, we have the right to collect ad revenue.”

    My reason for writing is just to get an idea of what is considered reasonable, as I have no idea what the going rate is for something like this. This sounds reasonable-ish, but if my book does very well it could start to get pricey.

    What do you think?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      The $100 sounds reasonably, but try for more copies. I’d suggest 5000 (but settle for 2000) copies.
      But the harsh reality is about 95% of books sell 1000 copies or less. I hope your book blasts through that barrier.

      Reply
      • Clare Walker

        Helen, thank you so much for your reply and additional advice. I’ll see if the publisher will accept $100 for more copies. Thanks also, for your good wishes. I realize that most books sell <1000 copes and I, too, hope to blast through that barrier! :)

        Reply
      • Clare Walker

        Helen,
        Thanks for the advice to negotiate with the rights holder of the song. I just heard back from them: “Yes, $100 for 5000 units is fine.”

        Just goes to show you — it never hurts to ask for a better price! If I sell 5000 units of my book, that more than covers the $100 permissions fee.

        My feeling is that I should accept this rate. What do you think? :)

        Reply
        • Helen Sedwick

          Yes. Take it. If sales take off, then you can deal with that later.
          Good work!

          Reply
          • Clare Walker

            Thanks again, Helen, for your attentiveness to this comment thread so many months after the article’s publication. Another quick question, or perhaps just a verification: when I sign a contract obtaining permission from the rights holder, who is getting permission — me, personally? Or my publishing imprint? For example, if you were to obtain permission to use song lyrics in your next novel, would Helen Sedwick be obtaining the permission, or Ten Gallon Press?

          • Helen Sedwick

            Clare, Either one will work if your imprint name is owned by you as a DBA or as an entity. My preference would be to request it in your name, but say you will be publishing the work under the imprint name. Covers both basis.

  31. Kerry

    Does anyone know of it’s OK to use a Disney lyric as the name of an online blog and it’s domain name?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Kerry, Sounds risky to me, especially if the lyric is distinctively Disney.

      Reply
  32. Melinda Freeland

    Fantastic article, Helen! It is so informative and helpful. I’m self-publishing my novel this summer, and it currently has tons of song lyrics referenced, ranging from three words to four lines of lyrics per mention.

    I knew there must by certain copyright laws regarding the use of lyrics, so I did a search and came across your post. After reading this, I’ll now edit the novel to just contain the song’s title and artist’s name.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Melinda, that the safest route. Good luck with your publishing adventure.

      Reply
  33. Gordon

    Hi Helen

    I am about to try my novel with Amazon e-books via Kindle,( first-time Author) and I am certainly glad I come across your article regarding music lyrics before I submitted. How do I stand with using poetry written over a hundred plus years, and a quote from somewhere between 400 BCE and 200 CE, examples below?

    I saw a Chapel by William Blake Born: November 28, 1757, Died: August 12, 1827
    To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by ROBERT HERRICK 1591 – 1674
    Guide to Perfection, 18th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita (written 400 BCE and 200 CE)

    Kind Regards

    Gordon

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Gordon, The copyright is the works you are describing has expired. Anything first published in 1922 or earlier is no longer protected by copyright and is in the public domain. Therefore, you may use those works without permission. It’s considered ethical, however, to give credit to the original creator.

      Reply
      • Helen Sedwick

        I meant to say the copyright IN the works you are describing.

        Reply
  34. Vivienne Gerard

    Thank you for such a great article! I just sent two emails out requesting use of two songs I’d like to include the lyrics of in my book. Hoping it’s less than the $300 I saw listed above!

    You have been very generous with your replies, so I’m hoping you are open to two more questions. If I am recommending that my readers listen to a song to support the healing work I offer in my book, is it “fair use” to simply list the musician’s name and song title, with no lyrics? And if so, for the e-book version, can a link to a YouTube version of that song be included? I’m guessing that offering a link is not copyrighted, but I have guessed incorrectly already based on your article’s advice!

    Again – thank you for wonderful advice, it is greatly appreciated!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Vivienne, yes you may refer to the title and artist’s name without permission. Those are not protected by copyright.
      Regarding the YouTube link, it depends on whether the link is to an authorized performance of the song as opposed to an infringing use. That may be difficult to determine unless the video is by the original artist or posted by a music company. When in doubt, leave it out.

      Reply
      • Vivienne

        Thank you so much, Helen!

        Reply
  35. Connie

    I know there is no hard and fast rule here, but if I want to use 7 words of “Part of that World” from The Little Mermaid in a novel, how much of a risk that creates? I hear Disney is pretty rigorous about that stuff. Just curious if there is a minimum under which you are OK. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Connie, Sorry, there is no magic number. Seven is a small number and hardly worth their making a fuss over. But there are no guarantees.

      Reply
  36. Aaron

    This is a wonderful resource. I was wondering if you could provide clarity on using Hal Leonard vs. the search resources:

    Say I use song lyrics as chapter titles – as an example, lyrics from “Strange Magic” by ELO.

    If I search “Strange Magic” on Hal Leonard, it returns 3 products, all of them referencing the ELO song that I’m utilizing. When I search the same on BMI, I find the similar entry for the ELO song, where it lists EMI BLACKWOOD MUSIC INC as the publisher.

    Because I was able to find the song on Hal Leonard, does that mean that Hal Leonard holds the print publishing rights for the song? Which would mean that I need to only contact Hal Leonard themselves?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Aaron, I would start by contacting Hal Leonard. They may hold the publishing rights, or they may manage them for EMI. They manage the rights licensing for hundreds of music companies.

      Reply
  37. Pete

    Hi Helen

    Great post. Here’s an oddity: I want to write a parody of an old song. The music is in the public domain but the lyrics are not. (The composer died many years before the lyricist did. So, if I get permission to do a parody of the lyrics, can I add a copyright free version of the PD music to it?

    Pete

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Pete, Yes. If you add new lyrics to a melody that is in the public domain, you retain the copyright in those lyrics. You don’t, however, have any exclusive claim to the melody. Anyone else may write new lyrics to that piece of music as well.

      Reply
      • Edward King

        Great article! We have added lyrics to a song that is public domain. How do we split the writers and publishing share when submitting the split info to BMI?

        Thanks,
        Edward

        Reply
        • Helen Sedwick

          Edward, I don’t follow your question. if the lyrics are in the public domain, then you don’t need to pay anyone. If the lyrics are not in the public domain, then you don’t pay BMI. BMI handles performances and recordings, not the publication of lyrics. For permission to use lyrics, you’ll need to go to Hal Leonard or one of the other music publishers.

          Reply
  38. Chaitanya Chari

    Learned Few Important Things Here. Thank You :D

    Reply
  39. Eugenia Parrish

    Hi Helen, thanks for this. I want to use the lyrics to a song that was published in 1933. It’s been used in several movies, including “The Green Mile” and “Precious”. Is there a time when a song’s lyrics goes public domain?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Eugenia, Any song that was first published before 1923 is in the public domain. For works first published in 1923 to 1977, it takes some research to determine if the lyrics have fallen into the public domain. They would have lost copyright protection if the copyright was not registered or the registration was not renewed. It’s quite a confusing process.
      You might take a look at the credits for those two movies and see if identify the copyright holder. The credits may say something such as “Lyrics by ___, reprinted with permission from ___.”

      Reply
      • Eugenia Parrish

        I’ll say it’s confusing! I could only find the original publishing date and it’s around 1932, i.e. just a few years off! I will follow up on your tip about checking the movie credits. I was beginning to think it would be easier to make up some lyrics of my own, but I’m no poet! The lyrics to this have a special meaning that I wanted to see how many caught. Thanks.

        Reply
        • Laurie

          That’s what I ended up doing, writing my own lyrics! It was not easy. Hopefully, they don’t suck. I, too, had in mind what I thought would be a perfect song but balked at the price tag. Then I realized, I can write something similar and in a way that will mean exactly what I want it to mean! Try it!

          Reply
        • Helen Sedwick

          You can also check with Alfred and Hal Leonard. They will let you know if they handle the publishing rights to that song

          Reply
  40. Ruth Ingram

    Thank you for this! I’m working on book three in a series and havent used I think but one song (rock a by baby) and now I have one song I want to use and possibly more. I didn’t think of it until another possible copyright flag came up (whoops) for something totally different. I’m glad I now have the info to help me with this. Thank you! I’m really hoping I don’t have to pay the 300 for something that’s going to not even sell 100 copies. That seems like a steep amount of money.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Ruth, If you find you are able to get the permissions you need at a lower price, please share it with our readers. Thank you.

      Reply
  41. henry

    if the book is non profit (i will not be selling it), do i still need to gain permission from the music publishers ?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Technically, yes, even if you are not selling the book, if you are publishing work created by others you need permission. Sadly, most book projects don’t make a profit, even if they are sold, so losing money does not change the need for permission.

      Reply
  42. Laurie

    Thank you for the article! I just signed a contract for my first novel in which I quote some song lyrics. I completed the first steps at Hal Leonard and received the message: “Effective September 15, 2016, our minimum licensing fee for lyric usages is $300.00 per composition.
    Approval of each song will be required prior to Hal Leonard granting permission.”

    Pretty steep, considering that I quote one pop song, four songs from WEST SIDE STORY, and one song from MAN OF LA MANCHA.

    Guess who is revising her novel?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Thanks for letter me know. $300 is ridiculous. They’ll lose out on what would have be easy income for them.

      Reply
  43. Shayna

    I have a question, do you still need permission to use the song lyrics even if you change some of the words? I would like to use Simon and Garfunkels line “hello darkness my old friend” but I changed it to “hello anxiety my old friend”.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Shayna, If you are using only those 5 words, and adding the creative new twist and meaning, then I don’t see much copyright risk. The more you use and the less you change, that increases the risk. So keep it short and make it yours.

      Reply
    • Peter Wood-Jenkins

      You could even change that line to – Mister Anxiety My dear Old Friend

      The change of meter would possibly benefit your song or poem

      Reply
  44. Leta McCurry

    Great information. Wish I had this before I published my first book!

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How to Use Song Lyrics in Your Book [INFOGRAPHIC] | Better Novel Project - […] There are at least two groups, ASCAP and BMI, whose job it is to license performance rights to various…
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  4. Get Published Weekly Roundup: July 17, 2017 – Grad Student Freelancers - […] chart and a sample permissions letter (click here). If you really want to use lyrics, check out this post by…
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