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 and 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.

This Post Has 72 Comments

  1. 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. 🙂

    1. Virginia

      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

    2. Kim Penfold

      What was the book? Whats your book, sounds like we should talk. I used everything from Billy Idol to Adele. Lots of Adele. I quoted others poems too. Deep shite I know.

    3. Kim Penfold

      What book is this and how did they get around it?

    4. Geri Johnson

      I’ve looked all over for this information. Thank you so much for the precise info I need. Now if I can find the right person to use some song lyrics. Any suggestions would be helpful. Thanks again for this wonderful article.

      1. Virginia Lloyd

        Hi Geri, I’m glad this information has helped you. The links in the post should take you to databases where you can search for the copyright holders of the song you want to reference in your work. Good luck with your investigations! — Virginia

  2. 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.

    1. Virginia

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

  3. Aimee DuFresne

    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,


    1. Virginia

      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

  4. Kathleen Basi

    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?

    1. Virginia

      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

  5. Kathleen Basi

    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… 🙂

  6. 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!

    1. 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

  7. 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, 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.

    1. Virginia

      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

  8. 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?

    1. Virginia

      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

  9. Uday

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

    Your replies been be helpful.


    1. Virginia

      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

  10. 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.

    1. Virginia

      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

  11. Niecey Roy

    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?

    1. Virginia

      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

  12. 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?

    1. Virginia

      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

  13. 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.

    1. Virginia

      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

  14. tam francis

    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 🙂

    1. Virginia

      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

  15. Sonia

    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!!

    1. Virginia

      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

  16. 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!



    1. Virginia

      Hi Michael — that’s so great of you to come back and let me know your good news! Please send me a link so I can take a look. I’m happy to know I was helpful to you. Good luck with promoting and selling your book. Best wishes — Virginia

  17. Melissa Pearl

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

    1. Virginia Lloyd

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

  18. Susannah

    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?


    1. Virginia Lloyd

      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

  19. 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)?


    1. Virginia Lloyd

      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

  20. Gina

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


  21. John Dunstan

    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 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

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      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

  22. Jenny Ackland

    If you ever come back this way Virginia, or update this post, I just found a database with a search facility that holds info about copyrights, who holds it for a particular work or author.

    Gave results on the two searches I made.

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Brilliant! Thanks Jenny. This is one of my most-trafficked posts, so hopefully this extra resource will help others looking for copyright information. –Virginia

  23. Chas

    Hello! WONDERFUL thread/site of information on a (most) tedious topic indeed! Thanks in advance – I too have learned more in 15 minutes here than hours of web searching . . .
    Okay, unpublished author here losing my mind with this song lyrics rights crud! (still dont get why one can google/bing “song lyrics” to a Beatle song let’s say and find UMPTEEN sites offering them for free – BUT – DON’T put 3 words in your book! (weird)
    Anywho, I see, “You can have a character sing most anything” above and I must ask; my story involves time travel back to the 1950’s. Like a FOOL I have/HAD included several old songs in the story for “nuance & flavor.” This said – I now realize I was a nit wit! Okay -instead of having a radio playing Chuck Berry’s Maybelline throughout a scene in little snippets of lyrics (and likely facing a guillotine for it!) CAN I safely just have one of the characters sing the song instead??? THANKS! I also have some short lead-ins to chapters such as {“Sailors, fighting…” – David Bowie} and I now gather these must be paid for or tossed? (out the dance hall window!) THANKS AGAIN – ur truly a light shed on a dismal subject!

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Thanks Chas for your lovely comment. Whether you intersperse a song’s lyrics through a scene, or have one of your characters sing it, you are still using another person’s creative work (the lyrics) in your own work, and therefore must seek permission to do so. I’m not a lawyer but I do know that it’s the law. Good luck with your project — Virginia

  24. Peter Moses Lee

    I’m an aspiring author. I intend to use the lyrics of songs in several books as well as on my website. Permission will definitely be needed as I use the lyrics extensively.
    I use the lyrics to teach and inspire. I wax lyrical and go ga-ga over why I think that the song is so good. If what I write sells well or spread virally, it will rekindle interest in the old popular songs that I use. I think that my application for permission should include a complete draft of what I intend to publish and offer to let the copyright holder of the lyrics the right to use what I have written in return for the right to use their lyrics in my books and on my website. A win-win situation without either party having to pay the other.
    It not confirmed whether I will be self publishing ( I’m going to talk to a traditional publisher within a month). Your article suggest that I should apply for permission as soon as possible as the publisher would require this. The application letter should disclose the publisher – which I do not know at this point in time. What should I do?

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hello Peter and apologies for the delay in responding. When it comes to applying for permission, I always think honesty is the best policy. So I suggest that you say to the copyright holder/s that you are seeking a publisher but are considering self-publishing the work. Good luck! –Virginia

  25. Rick
    1. Using quotes by Shakespeare or G.B. Shaw count as something to be copyrighted?
    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hi Rick,
      Thankfully not! Both authors have been dead for more than 70 years …

  26. Felicia

    Hello Virginia! I am a new author who is trying to get my unpublished book copyrighted. In my book, I am using a few songs from different artists because it fits the use of the characters in my book in different chapters. Because the book has not been copyrighted nor have I found a publishing company yet, should I go ahead and obtain permission from the copyright holders of the songs before I begin the process of getting my work copyrighted myself?

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hi Felicia. As the author of your manuscript, you already own copyright of your own work. My view is that you should seek permissions from copyright holders as soon as possible, though it may be difficult for permission to be granted in the absence of the sort of details they typically require. –Virginia

  27. Steve Warburton

    Thank you Virginia. I am currently writing (and illustrating) a graphic novel. I am hoping to incorporate some song lyrics that I feel are important in context. Your information has been insightful and hopefully will enable me to do this.
    Thanks again,
    Regards, Steve.

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hi Steve, thanks for letting me know. Good luck with your project — Virginia

  28. Jose Gabriel

    Hi! I know that I can’t use the lyrics in my book without permission, but can I use the song as inspiration and base for my book? The song is actually a story, but I gave it my own personal touch, a twist if you prefer, is that going to get me into trouble? Even though I gave it my own touch? I tried to communicate with the songwriter himself, but there was no way: he has now websites or other social media; except for the group’s lead singer, but she didn’t responded to my tweet on Twitter. Please help.

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hi Jose. I can’t possibly advise you specifically without knowing more details, however it sounds to me like you should be creating your own story. One twist on someone else’s story doesn’t sound like nearly enough to be able to call it your own. Best wishes, Virginia

  29. Ellie Rose McKee

    I used a single line from a song in the epigraph of one of my (self published) books. Surely that could be (successfully) argued as fair use?

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hi Ellie – I’m not a lawyer and not able to provide anything in the way of advice on this point, unfortunately. Best, Virginia

  30. Alexis

    I used lyrics that are public domain, to avoid this. I also attributed/gave backstory to the lyrics. I didn’t think I needed to do anything beyond this…was I off base?

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hi Alexis – if the lyrics you used are agreed to be in the public domain I imagine you are free to be as inventive as you wish. Best, Virginia

  31. Ella Apollodorus


    I feel that way about the one set of lyrics I have left in mine. I originally read that a couple of lines were okay, but that was about a decade ago. Now, I have altered all of those references to song titles (and my chapter titles are song titles) except for one. My character is named for a song, but doesn’t realize it. When she is told, the person quotes three words from the song. A few paragraphs later, he thinks five more, but they aren’t contiguous – he alters the lyric to fit the situation. I feel it could fall under fair use, but at the same time, it’s going to be a running joke between them through the series, so I guess I’d better get permission, especially since I may want to use other lyrics from the song at some point!

  32. Krystina

    Thank you for posting this. I used it when seeking permission to quote some song lyrics in my book, The Girl in the Gallery, which I just published on Amazon yesterday.

    There were two publishers for the songs I wanted to quote. I never heard back from one of them. The other requested more information, which I provided, and then I never heard back from them either. I did attempt follow up with him a few times, but to no avail. I had been honest in my initial request about being an independent author, which still seems to carry some stigma, but was excited to receive a response. It was frustrating being ignored. I had been prepared to re-write those passages, which I ultimately did. I prefer to play it safe. No answer isn’t the same as consent. I’d rather have the actual permission.

    Here were some other things they wanted to know that aren’t included in your list: what language the book is in, if there would be translations and into what languages, the term I was seeking to publish, the retail price of the book, other artists for whom permission was requested and the fee due them, and what my proposed fee was to them. Needless to say, I had to guess on a lot of these and did some quick math on others, especially since when I made my request, I was about 6 months out and hadn’t fully decided on some of those things.

    While it didn’t work out, I learned a lot about the process and about my own courage. It was nerve-wracking asking for permission. That request was the first indication to anyone but my immediate support system that I was even writing something. It made pressing the publish button a piece of cake!

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hi Krystina,
      Thanks so much for this helpful comment, I’m glad my post was useful to you even though you did not get the level of certainty from the copyright holders you would have preferred. But I think it’s very important that you have done that work and established a paper trail in the event of a copyright holder contacting you at some future moment.
      Good luck with your book! –Virginia

  33. Pablo

    Hi Virginia,

    Great post, and all the additional insights provided by your readers has certainly fleshed it out nicely.

    I understand that you are currently based in the USA, but in light of the fact that “(you’re) looking for great manuscripts from new “Australian” authors that I can sell to publishers in Australia and around the world.” I thought it might be handy if you included a link to APRA/AMCOS (the Australian equivalent to ASCAP, BMI & SESAC) in the main body of your post.

    As a general rule Licences for the use of copyright protected material (i.e. song lyrics) are administered by the publisher/administrator in the territory of origin of the request, so your prospective Australian authors are going to need to contact the Australian representative of the lyrics to obtain permission/clearance.
    And they can get these details from APRA/AMCOS. (

    If Australian authors contact the US or EU representatives/publishers, then they are going to either be ‘eventually’ re-directed to the AU publisher, or, as seems to be the case with some of the comments on this post, be completely ignored or lost in the system of automated emails, bounce-backs and wrong departments.

    P.S. While the application of the Fair Use doctrines can indeed at times seem contradictory, or at the very least, inconsistent, for authors reproducing lyrics in their commercial publications, there is absolutely no maximum portion of lyrics (i.e. up to two lines) that can be reproduced without obtaining permission/clearance, that can be defended by a claim of Fair Use.

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Thanks so much Pablo for this valuable addition. I’ll add it to a revised post asap for those who miss it in the comments. –Virginia

  34. Traci Freed

    Good article! Copyright law can be very confusing for authors. This article helped me better understand the process of obtaining copyright permission and why it is important. I recently read another article about copyright, fair use and permissions for books that would be useful for other authors. Check it out here:

  35. Thinleppard

    Thanks for this. Really helpful! Has anyone come across the following and how should I deal with it? I’ve contacted the relevant permission holder and they have come back with the question, ‘How much would you be willing to pay?’ Argh. I’ve got no idea, plus I am unemployed and doing this book as a labour of love more so than anything else! Advice, please!

    1. Virginia Lloyd

      Hi there – sorry not to reply sooner. I think honesty is the best policy when replying to this permission-holder. ‘Well, I’m unemployed and writing this book as a labour of love.’ Have you explained why you want to reproduce this particular lyric? If you can persuade him or her of the connection between the copyrighted material and your project, you might be able to appeal to the rights holder’s better nature.
      Good luck! –Virginia

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