Feb 24 Written by 

Quoting Song Lyrics in Your Book?

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Authors like to quote song lyrics and are often surprised to learn that to avoid being sued for copyright infringement they need written permission from the song's owner, traceable through one of three sources: www.ascap.com , www.bmi.com and www.sesac.com.


These three organizations protect copyrighted music and lyrics, granting licenses to bands and radio stations to play these songs. When a TV commercial uses a popular song or tune, that advertiser is paying big bucks for the privilege. If the song you seek isn't at ASCAP it might be at BMI or SESAC; keep looking for the copyright holder, who is most often a music publisher. From there, visit the publisher's website and submit a request for a license to use the lyrics in your book. The publisher will want to know:

  • how many copies of the book will be printed
  • how much of the song you are quoting
  • the context in which you are quoting the song
  • how long you will want to use this lyric

They will then get back to you, eventually, with a quote for the fee, YES, a FEE, for EVERY lyric you use, and you can either: 1) pay it, use the lyric, and put the permissions notice on your copyright page or 2) decline to pay and take the lyrics out of your manuscript and rewrite it to say, "The band played 'Hotel California'," or "My brother sang 'Bastards of Young' while kicking holes in his bedroom walls."

Why? We can read lyrics on YouTube, see them on the Internet anytime -- why not have them in our books? Answer: Because we are asking people for money for the book. If your book stands to make any money, composers and music publishers want their cut from what you're getting. (Imagine if a band recorded a song using your poetry and made several grand from the recording. Would you want some of the money?)

Composers (unlike writers) fiercely protect their creative work, have ASCAP, BMI and SESAC as their legal protectors and ask fees for song use. I had to tell a cartoonist he couldn't show his two characters singing together "Let it be, let it be" unless he sought written permission and paid a fee. He said those were just three words that were not necessarily lyrics. Oh, no. The more famous the lyric, the higher the price. "We're goin' boom, boom, boom, that's the way we live" will cost you $50. Are you sure that your manuscript needs your lyrics?

Two other reasons not to use song lyrics in manuscripts: Readers who might not know the lyric (or the tune that goes with it) can't be emotionally moved by it. So that Elvis Costello song moves you deeply. Nobody else reading the lyric alone for the first time feels that same way. It doesn't transmit. And if you swore in a contract or copyright application that your work is all your own original stuff, but have used song lyrics without permission, you have lied and the copyright holder can sue you or your publisher (who will in turn sue you). The more your book sells, the more a lawsuit is likely. Publish the book without caring and if it sells much someone will tell someone and they will track you down.

1509 Last modified on Friday, 09 February 2018
Catherine Rankovic

Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.