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Using lyrics or an epigraph in your book? Curious about copyright?

How do I obtain permission to reproduce song lyrics in my novel?

Two of my clients have been surprised recently to learn that they are responsible for obtaining permission to reproduce song lyrics in their respective novels. I’m sorry to break it to you, authors, but if you want to reproduce anything by another artist in your book – a painting, a few lines from a poem, song lyrics, a photograph – you have to identify who owns the copyright and contact that person (often a company or a literary estate) for permission to do so.

I won’t sugarcoat it: the process is a total drag, so the sooner you get on to it, the better. There are also some common problems that arise during the permission-seeking process that I’ll get to in a minute. But first …

Why is it the author’s responsibility?
When you sign a publishing agreement, you warrant to the publisher several things, among them (and often the first thing listed) that the Work is original, written by you, and that it does not infringe any existing copyright. Clearly, the lyrics from a song you did not write yourself must be someone else’s copyright, so you need to obtain permission to reproduce those lyrics in the Work.

When reading one client’s manuscript, I saw that the author not only reproduced the lyrics from one particular song, but repeated one or two lines through the novel as a motif. In this case it’s essential to obtain permission immediately in case the copyright holder refuses the request, or (worse?) says Yes, but here’s our fee for doing so.

With my other client, I must confess that I was surprised and disappointed that her publisher insisted on her obtaining copyright permissions. I felt her references to lyrics were so slight – less than eight words in each instance – that her use would have fallen within the doctrine of fair use.  But publishers are behaving like teenagers these days, worrying about every tiny little thing in order not to attract the wrong kind of attention. Such as being sued by a copyright holder who’s had a tough time of it in the economic downturn and is looking for some free money.

Publishing contract clauses about copyright material
In the contract you sign with your publisher, there are usually a few clauses about the delivery of the Work. One of them deals with material appearing in the Work for which you, the author, do not own copyright. Examples of relevant wording from recent Australian publishing contracts I’ve seen:

For any part of the Work for which the copyright is not its own the Author shall, at his own expense, obtain written permission for the use of that part within the Work from the owners of the respective copyrights, and supply that permission to the publishers …

The Author shall, at the Author’s own expense, obtain all necessary permissions for inclusion in the Work of any copyright material appearing in the Work and for the reproduction of such material for all editions of the Work throughout the Territory…

Boring! So how do I go about obtaining copyright permission?
In a word, Google. Look hard enough and you’ll find scraps of information relating to copyright, usually where you see the (c) sign. If you’re quoting from a book, the imprint page towards the front should have the relevant contact details. For song lyrics, all music publishers and songwriters must belong to one of www.ascap.comwww.bmi.com and www.sesac.com. Here’s a detailed blogpost about searching those websites.

Here’s what you do. You write a letter or an email to the publisher/copyright holder that explains:

  • you are the author of a work named TITLE to be published WHEN by PUBLISHER/S (full name/s and address/es of publisher/s) in TERRITORY (eg Australia and New Zealand, or North America including Canada, or all Commonwealth territories excluding Australia) and stating the PRINT RUN if possible (a low print run will encourage many copyright holders not to charge you a fee*)
  • you are seeking permission to reproduce the following lyrics from SONG by SONGWRITER
  • you quote the exact usage of the lyrics, giving enough context for the copyright holder to determine whether or not it’s a reasonable and “safe” request for them to approve.

*You should be prepared for the copyright holder to ask you to pay a fee.

Best-case scenario: The copyright holder will grant your request without any charge, and provide the wording for which you acknowledge permission in the acknowledgments or on the imprint page.

Worst-case scenario: The copyright holder will refuse your request or charge such an outrageously high fee that you’ll have to ditch the lyrics or poetry or whatever it was that you wanted to use in the first place.

What if I don’t hear back?
Your initial email or letter is likely to get bounced around from person to person within the copyright-holding organisation. Sometimes you will receive an email asking you to forward your request to another person or organisation. This can go on for some time and sometimes for so long that it will test your enthusiasm for using the lyrics/photograph/verse that is the subject of your request.

It’s possible (and not uncommon) that you will not hear back from the copyright holder at all. As long as you have evidence that you legitimately sought their permission, you can go ahead with your original plan to include the copyright material, making sure that on the imprint page of your book it states words to the effect that “all reasonable efforts have been made to contact the copyright holders” and that anyone who believes their copyright to be infringed is welcome to contact the publisher. Your publisher is likely to have precedent wording.

Have I forgotten anything?
I hope this post is helpful to you. If you have other questions about copyright or anything you’re struggling with in your own work (fiction or nonfiction), I would love to hear from you, so please leave me a comment below.

{ 41 comments… add one }

  • Blair

    Great post.

    I’ve just finished a book that uses lyrics from 24 songs and dialogue from two movies.

    Looks like I have work to do. :)

    • Thanks for your feedback, Blair. I’d love to know what kind of response/s you get (or not) from the relevant rights holders. I wish you patience and luck. –Virginia

  • Wanda Gallimore

    I am in the process of writing a book using the titles and selected lyrics as chapter titles and introductions to said chapter. There are 14 of them. Seemed like a good idea at the time. This information is very helpful.

    • Thanks for reading and for letting me know, Wanda. Good luck with your book. –Virginia

  • Hi Virginia,

    Many thanks for posting this article. I have just finished my first book and added a few lines of lyrics to the beginning of each chapter…! As I began my search for contact information, I came across your article. Now I am wondering if the lyrics really do add to the reader’s experience of the book. The songs were vital to my healing journey as I wrote about the love and loss of my husband, but perhaps not as powerful as the story itself. Either way, I appreciate your honesty in the time and effort that is involved in obtaining permission. It certainly makes me take time to reflect if this is the best way forward.

    I was surprised to see your book is also a story of love and loss. Congratulations, I know firsthand it is not easy to write about someone you loved so much but it is a great tribute to their memory and spirit.

    Thanks again and I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    Best wishes,

    Aimee

    • Hi Aimee,
      I’m glad my post has prompted you to think more carefully about the purpose and real value of including lyrics throughout your book. If they are essential to the work then you need to roll up your sleeves and do the work of obtaining copyright permission as no bona fide publisher will print it without written evidence you have the relevant permission from the respective copyright holder(s). But oftentimes it seems to me that writers use lyrics as something similar to a creative crutch or a kind of shorthand — almost as a way into the material that only that author can write. In that case the lyrics hopefully become something like the rocket boosters that fell back to earth after a space shuttle launched into orbit. Necessary at the beginning of the author’s process, but perhaps not in the long term.
      Good luck with your project. –Virginia

  • Here’s what I’m wondering. I found this post in a search to try to identify what is the threshold of needing that permission. It looks like there is no certain answer, and the safest thing is to revise to excise or to ask permission. My gut is to avoid the hassle altogether by removing the reference–but I’m using it in the context of a short story (750 words) in which two people are singing and dancing on a beach. I’m having trouble imagining how to write that without referencing SOMETHING real. It’s one thing to take away titles or references at the start of a chapter–how have others dealt with working without songs when the song is incorporated into the action?
    Kathleen Basi recently posted..Too Polite For His Own Good

    • Hi Kathleen,
      Titles are not subject to copyright so you can reference specific song titles in your work. Actual lyrics are subject to copyright, however, and the muddy principle of “fair use” applies to someone such as yourself using someone else’s lyrics in your own work. I should think that in such a short story your focus would be on the dynamics between the characters more than what they are actually singing? Perhaps in the songs you wish to quote from there is subject matter or a theme that your story could draw out, without having to be too specific about lyrics? Good luck with your story. –Virginia

  • Well, it’s good to know that the titles aren’t copyrighted. That might help. I just can’t (so far, at least) come up with any way to do this scene without it feeling forced, unless we’re actually hearing a bit of what they’re saying. Ah, the difficulties of the writer’s life… :)
    Kathleen Basi recently posted..Too Polite For His Own Good

  • Tyler

    Dear Virginia,

    First off, I’d like to thank you for the wealth of information regarding the procurement of permission. Your website was a trusted resource throughout the time-consuming and often tedious process. Everything one could possibly need to begin the process was there. I’d like to share my experience below in the hope it will help other writers:

    I began the process on January 7, 2013, seeking permission to reproduce lyrics from three songs. Utilizing the link on your website to ASCAP, I identified the artist(s) of each song as well as the initial copyright holder/publisher. It took a little more web navigating, primarily via Google and Wikipedia to track down the current copyright holder, as the original copyright holder/publisher in each instance had been bought out by a large corporation. As it would turn out, separate entities owned the rights to each song, which necessitated three individual requests. I received permission from the last copyright holder/publisher on February 26, 2013. All three publishers requested a fee for a specific print run quantity of my book. In only one instance was permission granted in excess of the initial print run, which really means that for subsequent print runs, permission would need to be granted again for the other two. All three also had specific wording they wanted to appear in the copyright section of my book. Lastly, two of the three publishers granted permission on a “most favored nations basis.” In the context of a print license agreement, this means that should another publisher get a better deal from me (i.e. more money), the publisher granting me permission shall be entitled to the same deal automatically.

    In my initial requests to the publishers, I simply adapted the information you suggested, utilizing your three bullets as a template. For the third bullet, I substituted the following phrase:

    • Please see the following excerpt from CHAPTER # of TITLE OF WORK for the context in which the lyrics will be used: (COPY AND PASTE EXCERPT ON THE NEXT LINE)

    In all three cases, and in large credit to the information and direction you provided, Virginia, the publishers had no qualms granting me permission. There was no back and forth between me and them. They received all the information they needed to make a decision up front, which in the long run, sped the process up. That’s not to say that there weren’t emails or phone calls I made requesting the status of my requests. Two of the three publishers had automated response systems that informed me they received my initial inquiries. In those cases, I received permission in a total of no more than two weeks. However, the third publisher had no such centralized system, and I heard nothing until three weeks passed when I called them. The lack of initial response aside, something important to know is that the copyright department of the publisher contacts all parties that have an “interest” in the copyrighted work. And the publisher must get approval from each party before granting permission to reproduce the copyrighted work–and that process takes time.

    Endeavoring to get permission does test one’s resolve to actually use the copyrighted material. However, with the clear-cut information on your website, you have provided an invaluable resource that will help all writers navigate the challenges in the process. Thank you so much, Virginia!

    • Dear Tyler,
      I can’t thank you enough for taking the trouble to let me and other readers of this post know about your success. It’s so gratifying to hear that by following my suggestions you were able to secure permission. And it’s really helpful to hear of the adaptions you made. I think this is all so valuable that I will do an updated post to reflect your comments and renewed attention to this post, which already gets a fair amount of traffic. Thanks again, and good luck with your project –Virginia

  • Michael

    Dear Virginia,

    Thanks for posting such useful information! I was able to glean more from your post in 10 minutes than from most other places over a period of hours. I’m finally drawing my first novel to a close – it’s been a work in progress for quite some time. However, I have a couple of questions which I am hoping you can shed some light on for me.

    First: There are a number of “versions” of the song I wish to use the lyrics for. Using the handy URLs you provided, I found the song at BMI (with the performer I like, so I know I have the “right” one). They list the songwriter and the publisher, but there is only contact information for the publisher. Do I simply address my e-mail/letter to the publisher, noting whom the songwriter is? Should I include the BMI Work numbers in my correspondence for easier identification?

    Second: I’m a little confused when you are talking about a print run. I am anticipating self-publishing this book in electronic format only (most likely via Amazon.com), so am not sure there would be a print run as the book will be available in electronic versions only. How would I address this in the e-mail/letter for permission? Any idea if publishers frown on those who self-publish?

    Thank you in advance for your time and consideration and for posting this information.

    • Hi Michael,
      Thanks for these great questions. In response:

      1. For your first question, I suggest writing to the publisher with the BMI work number/s as you suspected. You’ve got to spoon-feed the people who can help you, make it as easy as possible for them to help you. When you write to the publisher, make it clear that you could not find contact information for the songwriter, and ask them specifically what they suggest you do. This covers you in the event that you cannot trace the songwriter, as it shows some kind of paper trail in which you did try to ascertain the relevant information. If you cannot find the songwriter, use the disclaimer wording I suggest in the post above. If the publisher responds with contact details for the songwriter, then approach the songwriter.

      2. Print runs. I should think that in the case of a self-published e-book that the copyright holder would be interested in how many total downloads you anticipate. It would be appropriate to pick a reasonable number – say, 5,000 or 10,000 worldwide – and perhaps provide some rationale for why you chose that number. I feel on shaky ground here as I’ve not had to consider this question until now. I’d love to hear from other readers who have had experience with seeking copyright permission for a self-published creative work. I doubt there is any stigma attached to the fact that it’s a self-published project; after all, plenty of people who do theatre performances or solo shows are also self-publishing in a sense. The copyright holder simply wants to be asked for permission to use their work in your own work, and for their work to be acknowledged as their own, and if it seems reasonable, they may ask for a fee to do so. But in many cases no fee is sought, and in the case of a self-published novel you might be lucky to escape without paying a fee.

      Michael, I wish you well with finishing your novel. It’s no easy task, and it’s not made easier by having to source copyright-holders’ permissions! Best wishes — Virginia

  • Uday

    But can we just mention the names of the songs as a foot note? A song for a chapter or like wise. No using lyrics, or no evaluation of the music or its lyrics. Intention being that the reader may search the song on the internet and listen or watch it if they wish to.
    Please tell me if this also would require permission from that particular artist?

    • Hi Uday. Song titles are not subject to copyright, so you can mention them without the need to obtain permission from copyright holders. Thanks for reading and commenting — Virginia

  • Uday

    Just a small query further..
    How about ‘song name’ by ‘artist’?
    Writing the name of the band?

    Your replies been be helpful.

    Thankyou.

    • Hi again Uday. I don’t see any issue at all in naming an artist and a song. Books and magazine articles are full of such references, and as I said before, song titles are not subject to copyright. It’s reproducing lyrics from someone else’s song in your own work that needs permission and attribution. Good luck! –Virginia

  • Dick

    Thanks for the info. I used ASCAP’s search engine to find an artist and their representative to contact in order to obtain permission to use the lyrics from their songs in my soon-to-be self-published novel. Maybe I’ll get permission to use it free, maybe I won’t. But your information made it much easier and quicker to find the contact information I need.

    • Hi Dick, thank you so much for letting me know! I hope you’ll be allowed to reproduce the lyrics for free. Really thrilled to know this post helped you. –Virginia

  • Hi Virginia! Thanks so much for posting this. I am wondering if you could tell me if I would need permissions to use the name of a song as a three book series title? Neither the song title, nor the lyrics are actually used within the book, it would only be used as the book series name for thee front cover.

    I read that Titles are not copyright protected?

    • Hello Niecey, it is true that titles are not subject to copyright. In fact a recently published novel by my client Kirsten Krauth is called just_a_girl, which is both a commonly used phrase as well as the title of a popular song. Unlike what you’re proposing, however, her protagonist uses just_a_girl as her online ‘handle’ and forms part of the story. Good luck with your writing — Virginia

  • Ruth Hansen

    Thanks for the information! Is it appropriate to seek permissions before even finding an agent or should I wait until I can say for certain the work is going to be published?

    • Hi Ruth. An agent is going to recommend you seek permissions but the copyright holder is unlikely to give permission until he or she has the defined parameters set by a contract to publish a work, such as geographical territory, print run and so forth. It would be more practical to have a publishing contract on the table before you seek copyright holders’ approval. Hope that helps –Virginia

  • LK

    Is there an established opinion on what is actually covered by copyright laws as far as lyrics go? For example “I love you” surely can’t be protected, though used as lyrics many times. “Everybody, let’s rock,” is clearly from Jailhouse Rock, but seriously? I need to find who owns it? A little clarification here please.

    • Hi LK, thanks for reading. I’m not a lawyer so I can’t offer any definitive opinion, but I take your point that some phrases like “I love you” are generic and are used in many different songs. My sense is that if you must quote song lyrics in your own work, and those lyrics are specific and identifiable (such as those in Jailhouse Rock), then a traditional publisher will want you to obtain copyright approval. –Virginia

  • So, I’ve been to both sites and found my song and composer, they’re all deceased. I do not see where or who holds the copyright. Help :)
    tam francis recently posted..Would You like to go to The Wild Party: Book Review

    • Hello Tam. This is a good question. If the songwriter is deceased, someone such as an estate still holds copyright. Copyright usually remains in effect for 75 years after the creator’s death. So I’d suggest you write to the publisher (which would be listed on those sites), list all the relevant information, and ask for their advice. I wish you luck — Virginia

  • Thank you so much for this post, Virginia. Your advice is spot on. Indeed, I did use song lyrics as inspiration for writing and was concerned about permissions to use them in the non-fiction ebook I am writing.
    After reading your advice about using the ‘context’ of the meaning, not the actual lyrics, you saved me from encountering a very difficult process and possibly a financial expenditure I cannot afford.
    I wrote poetry for many years and am perfectly capable of writing a poem reflecting the inspirational context that I can use at the beginning of the book, and utilize stanzas from the poem to highlight the chapters.
    Thank you very much!!

    • Hi Sonia,
      Thank you so much for writing and letting me know! I’m always happy to learn I’ve helped save someone some money. I think sometimes that the use of song lyrics can be a creative crutch for a writer, and by digging a little bit more the writer can cast off the actual lyrics to get to where their work is really leading them. I’m so glad you found my post and that it helped. All best with your writing — Virginia

  • Michael

    Hi Virginia,

    I wrote to you with some questions back in March and thought I would let you know that I just published my first book yesterday. It is live on Amazon. Still kind of hard to believe!

    I wanted to thank you again for your input. I never did hear back from the publisher, so made the disclaimer you recommended about using all reasonable efforts to obtain permission, etc.

    Hard to believe the journey is over (for now), but thank you once more for the guidance!

    Best,

    Michael

  • Oh my gosh, this post is solid gold!!!
    Thank you so much, you’ve made my job so much easier!!

    • Hey, Melissa, thanks so much for letting me know! Good luck with your project. –Virginia

  • Hi Virginia,

    I have a question. What happens if in the book, we’re quoting a parody or adaptation of the original song? In this case my father sings his own version of a song, to the tune of the original. Would that still require copyright approval?

    Thanks
    Susannah

    • Hi Susannah,
      As I’m not a lawyer, I am not qualified to advise on particular instances. This is a great question, which someone at the ArtsLaw Centre could possibly answer via email or a quick phone call. I’d rather not speculate on this one. But I’d love to hear what you find out, if you pursue the question. –Virginia

  • Gina

    Hi Virginia,

    This post is so helpful – thank you so much! The novel I’m writing and planning to self-publish this fall involves three characters who are obsessed with rock music, so per your advice in this post, I’ve just been using titles of songs (ex: Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar). From what I’ve gathered by reading this post as well as the comments below is that as long as you aren’t using actual song lyrics, you’re not committing copyright infringement. Having said that, do you happen to know if it’s also alright to make general references to the song’s content (ex: describing the twang of the opening guitar chords, saying that the song is about heartbreak and revenge, or having a character sing the song’s bridge out loud at a party – without saying any of the actual lyrics, of course)?

    Thanks!
    Gina

    • Hi Gina,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Characters in a novel can and do say what they like about music or an individual song – Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity springs to mind – so I don’t see a problem from your description of what you’re proposing (or doing) in your novel.
      Keep in mind however that I am not a lawyer! Best wishes with your publishing journey — Virginia

  • Thanks so much again, Virginia! I really appreciate your time and thoughtful response. Your site is great.

    Best,
    Gina

  • Thanks very much for your very informative post and I am following up to obtain permission to use lyrics in a book I have just written on my journey to Chicago and Kentucky researching the development of Thumbpicking guitar players. a very narrow niche, I admit but this is really a vanity project which I will be publishing on demand with lulu.com like my recipe book., Old Derbyshire Desserts
    I had a lot of fun choosing lyrics to head up each chapter and set the scene as it were, but would drop them if the copyright owners want too much money.
    With my recipes, I had to pay 60 sterling to the estate of a dead

    • Hi John and thanks for sharing your experience chasing lyrics/recipes – though I would love to know what the rest of your final sentence was! As would other readers of this blog. I suspect. Good luck with your project — Virginia

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