Can I use song lyrics in my story?

Song lyrics can give a scene a particular mood or evoke a particular memory or time. They can set the tone when used as a quote at the start of a chapter. But song lyrics are copyrighted, raising the question: can you use them in your book?

The short answer is “yes, but you’ll need permission.” 

What’s involved in getting permission? And what are the alternatives to quoting lyrics? First, let’s discuss what copyright is and how it applies to lyrics.

What is copyright?

Copyright provides legal protection for original creations like text, art, photographs, music, and lyrics. In New Zealand, if you create something, then those words, images, or sounds are automatically copyrighted

Copyright law provides creators or copyright holders legal protection should their work be copied without their permission. And sometimes the creator and copyright holder are different, as is often the case with songs. 

There are some cases when you don’t need permission to copy or use someone else’s work. For example, if you aren’t using a “substantial part” of the work, then you don’t need permission.

What is considered a substantial part?

Copyright Licensing NZ says,

“It may be enough to infringe copyright by reproducing a very small part of another person’s work if it is important or significant in some way, for example by reproducing a few lines from a poem, an extract from a book or a paragraph from a journal article.”

Since songs are short, often only 500 words, quoting even 10 words could be considered substantial. So to avoid upsetting the copyright holder, you should ask for permission to use their lyrics in your book.

How do I get permission?

Getting permission can be complicated and expensive. It’s complicated because the person who wrote the song might not be the person who owns the copyright. For example, Ben Harper wrote the lyrics to the song “Diamonds on the Inside”, but EMI Virgin Media (and others) owns the copyright. 

It’s expensive because the copyright holder can charge whatever they want for you to use their work. One author had to pay £535 for the right to use a single line from Oasis’s “Wonderwall” in their book.

If you haven’t been put off and still want to use lyrics in your book, then you’ll need to:

  • find the copyright holder
  • ask them for permission.

How to find the copyright holder

CD or record inserts will often state who the copyright holder is. On Spotify, you can find copyright information for an album at the end of the song list. Here is a screenshot showing the copyright information for Beyoncé’s album Dangerously In Love.

Screenshot showing the copyright information for Beyoncé’s album Dangerously In Love. June 24, 2003. © 2003 J Records, 2003 Sony Music Entertainment Inc.
Screenshot showing the copyright information for Beyoncé’s album Dangerously In Love.

You can also search organisations that represent songwriters and music publishers, such as the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA).

Copyright Licensing NZ has a PDF fact sheet that goes into more detail about finding copyright holders.

How to ask for permission

This can be a Kafka-esque mission, as some authors have found out. But in simplest terms, email the copyright holder and ask for permission. Copyright Licensing NZ has an excellent list of what to include in your request. Or you could use the template written by Helen Sedwick at The Book Designer. Both CLNZ and The Book Designer’s templates suggest including details such as:

  • who you are 
  • how you will use the lyric (provide context, like the chapter or section it’s in)
  • why you want to use it
  • what your initial print run is (or if you’re using a print-on-demand service like IngramSpark, ask for permission to print up to so many copies)
  • how you should credit their work.

Then you wait and see what response you get. The copyright holder is not obligated to reply to your request, so you might not hear from them at all. If they do reply, then pay the fee and follow their instructions.

What are the alternatives to using lyrics?

If getting permission sounds too complicated and expensive, then consider trying these alternatives:

Use only the song title or artist’s name. Names, titles, and headlines are generally not protected by copyright, but don’t use the song’s title as the title for your book – that could be copyright or trademark infringement. For example,

  • “Never gonna give you up” started playing on the radio.
  • Our first dance was to Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up”, the song that played on our first date at the bowling alley.
  • In the spirit of the opening lines of “Never gonna give you up”, shall we give this relationship thing a go? Make it official?

Use lyrics that are in the public domain. If the song’s copyright has expired, then you don’t need permission to use the lyrics. You will still need to do your research to find out if the copyright has expired though.

Make up your own lyrics. Lyrics are often used in fiction to evoke a mood or tone, so have a go creating that tone using your own words.

Why does copyright matter?

The same laws that protect those who own the copyright to lyrics also protect your work from being copied. While it might seem that music labels charge too much, they are within their rights to do so. Your work is protected by copyright laws too. If someone copies your book and re-sells it or reproduces your photos without your permission, then you have the right to take legal action or submit a DMCA request. Or you can give them permission and charge them for the privilege. As the copyright holder, the choice is yours.

Finally…

If you need help editing your manuscript, contact me today and let’s start a conversation.

Finally, a disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and this article provides general information about copyright, not legal advice. For specific advice, contact a copyright lawyer.

References

Copyright Licensing New Zealand, n.d. “Copyright in New Zealand” in Copyright Licensing New Zealand. https://knowledgebase.copyright.co.nz/hc/en-us/articles/115002989474-Copyright-in-New-Zealand

Copyright Licensing New Zealand, 20 April, 2022. “What is a DMCA take-down notice?” in Copyright Licensing New Zealand. https://copyright.co.nz/about/news-and-event/what-is-a-dmca-take-down-notice

Copyright Licensing New Zealand, n.d. “When Permission is Not Needed” in Copyright Licensing New Zealand. https://knowledgebase.copyright.co.nz/hc/en-us/articles/115003008613-When-Permission-is-Not-Needed

Copyright Licensing New Zealand, n.d. “Your guide to NZ copyright: Finding copyright owners” in Copyright Licensing New Zealand. https://www.copyright.co.nz/Downloads/Assets/5213/1/fact-sheet:-finding-copyright-owners.pdf

Copyright Licensing New Zealand, n.d. “Your guide to NZ copyright: Obtaining Permission to use copyright material” in Copyright Licensing New Zealand. https://www.copyright.co.nz/Downloads/Assets/5319/1/fact-sheet:-obtaining-permission.pdf

du Fresne, Karl, 11 July, 2016. “Quoting song lyrics proves a song and dance” in Stuff.co.nz. https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/music/81999417/quoting-song-lyrics-proves-a-song-and-dance

Morrison, Blake, 1 May, 2010. “Blake Morrison on the cost of quoting lyrics” in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/may/01/blake-morrison-lyrics-copyright

Sedwick, Helen, 27 March, 2015. “How to Use Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer” in The Book Designer. https://www.thebookdesigner.com/how-to-use-lyrics-without-paying-a-fortune-or-a-lawyer/