You Need Permission to Quote Song Lyrics

We often see manuscripts that quote song lyrics.  Authors seem genuinely amazed that they can’t just lift the lyrics out of songs and plunk them into their manuscripts.

I’m not sure why, in this age of music downloads causing lawsuits, authors aren’t getting the message that they need to get permission to quote copyrighted song lyrics  in their books.

Here in Minnesota, a jury found a mother guilty of sharing downloads of several songs and she was ordered to pay almost a quarter of a million dollars to several record companies.

Granted, her case was about recording music and books are about quoting lyrics, but there’s a connection–the music industry.

One intellectual property attorney warns authors they should get permission from the owner (the one who has the rights to license the song) of the lyrics of the song. Performance of the song is another aspect, but authors can’t capture performances in their books, so they need to get express written permission to write the lyrics if they intend to include the lyrics anywhere in the book.

At Expert Publishing, we went through this permissions exercise with an author. She quoted several lyrics of modern Christian music in her manuscript, and when we told her she needed to show us the permission to use the lyrics before we’d include them in the book , she went out and got it from each owner.  It was a process to be sure, but if you want to include song lyrics in your book, you absolutely need to get permission.

If you rearrange the letters in use, you get sue.  And sue is what the lyric owner will do if you use lyrics without permission.

Happy writing!


26 Responses to “You Need Permission to Quote Song Lyrics”

  1. 1 Vonjazz November 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks so much for the warning.

    This is, I feel, a sad reflection of a warped industry, trying its best to shoot the innocent when unable to lock up the real criminals who steal entire songs and often profit from doing so – online, downloads, sharing…etc, etc. It reminds me of inept police who go after soft targets only.

    What I find mindblowing is that I can arrive at my local pub each Friday night and be PAID to sing an endless arrangement of Beatles’songs or Van Morrison numbers, thereby earning a living, and not have to pay anyone a cent.

    How does quoting a few lines in a novel disadvantage the songwriter in any way? In fact it could be seen as a form of free advertising.

    This alongside the reality that lawyers from the music business will pounce on anyone who even quotes one line from a song in any publised book, simply defies logic.

    The novel I have written is probably going to inspire people to listen to the Leonard Cohen songs and others I have quoted as an introduction to each chapter. I think the music industry should be challenged on this. Winston Churchill wrote for pleasure and for profit also – if I quote him all that is needed is recognition at the end of the quote (as long as it is a small fraction of the total word count of my writing.

    What gives the music business the right to demand money when their writers are quoted and given credit?

    Surely there are others who would like to challenge this? If so please email me:

  2. 2 Tameka (BloggerPoet) (@Tamstarz) June 11, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I have a few song lyrics in my novel as the lead character is a singer and she is singing her idols songs in several scenes. I had read before that I needed to get permission to use them and put it on my list of things to-do before self-publishing.

    I understand the frustration of the above commenter though. There does seem to be a disconnect somewhere, but I’d rather follow the rules in this instance than be sued.

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