Do Song Lyrics Belong In Your Book?

I grew up tuned in to the radio. In the late sixties my station was 93 KHJ, “Boss Radio.” I knew the words to every song. In the early seventies I was still singing along, even to songs like Don McClean’s “American Pie,” with verses that went on even when you may have thought the song had to be ending. That’s twenty-five verses from beginning to end, none of them repeating.

Music defined my days in those youthful years. Singers gave me a language that helped me understand my life better.

Now that I’m writing a book about that time, however, I run up against a hard truth: I cannot include song lyrics—not even a single line from a song. Apparently, there is no minimum amount of a song that can legally be quoted when using lyrics in books.

The rights to legally quote from a song—whether it’s a song intended to set mood, a few lines of lyrics used to open a chapter, or a scene showing a character singing along to a song—requires permission from the copyright owner. That prospect can be expensive, or worse. It can be impossible.

So how much is “expensive” you may ask. “Expensive” has different meanings for different people. Are we talking about hundreds of dollars to get permissions for use from the copyright owner? Maybe. Thousands? Maybe.

And how long would it take to find a better answer? Word has it the process of finding an answer to that question—how much does it cost to get permissions—can take anywhere from six to eight weeks to never.

I know, that doesn’t sound good. But there is some good news.

Writers are free to use song titles without permission, and those titles can have a similar effect as a few song lyrics, or at least enough of an effect, to satisfy. If including song lyrics is for any reason important to you to do in a book you plan to publish, see if including the song title instead can fulfill your needs. Another option is to change the sentence to make the words of the song title work.

While we’re on the topic of titles, keep in mind too that you can quote many types of titles without obtaining copyright permissions. Record album titles are not copyrighted. Movie titles are not copyrighted. Book titles are not under copyright either.

If you are ready to do the work needed to quote song lyrics in your book, here are the steps to take:

  1. Track down the publisher of the song. 
  2. Request permission. To do this you may need to fill out a form on the publisher’s website after you locate the information related to licensing and permissions. Another term you may need to search is Print License. 

Sony/ATV is one of three the largest music publishers in the world. The two others are Warner Chapelle and Universal Music Publishing Group. Hal Leonard is another popular publisher.

The Music Publishers Association has a list of every music publisher in business today. You can use this directory to visit every website and search for the song you want.

Another route is to try visiting the artist’s website. Joni Mitchell’s permissions page shows how that can be helpful.

You may also want to try searching the big performance-rights organizations: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC .

By now you could be thinking you want to throw in the towel and take a chance including a few words or a few lines from a song in your book, right? I have to tell you: Word has it, this is not a good idea. You can be sued. And you won’t win.

I wish you the very best making good decisions and doing the required research and permissions requests if you want to include song lyrics in your book. Just be sure you’re ready to take your walk down “The Long and Winding Road.” It might work out all right. The Beatles knew that road quite well and they didn’t do too badly.