How to Use Lyrics in Your Writing Without Risk

Writers love to use lyrics to communicate setting and character. After all, a Sinatra ballad evokes a wartime romance while a Grateful Dead chorus transports readers to a smoky love-in. But using lyrics without permission is risky, not because they are special in the eyes of the law, but because they are owned by music… [Read More]

How to use song lyrics in your writing without risk by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.com

How to use song lyrics in your writing without risk by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.comWriters love to use lyrics to communicate setting and character. After all, a Sinatra ballad evokes a wartime romance while a Grateful Dead chorus transports readers to a smoky love-in.

But using lyrics without permission is risky, not because they are special in the eyes of the law, but because they are owned by music companies that aggressively protect their rights. You could get a lawyer letter demanding you “cease and desist” using the lyrics. To comply you would have to shred every copy of your book, even though the infringing words are 25 out of 95,000. Worse, you could be liable for monetary damages.How to use song lyrics in your writing without risk by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.com

Obtaining Permission to Use Lyrics

Before you delete the lyrics from your work, let’s look at how to get permission.

Suppose you want to quote lyrics from Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow by Carole King and Gerald Goffin. You might be tempted to contact the songwriters directly. Don’t. Typically, songwriters don’t handle the licensing of their songs. They assign or license their songs to music publishers that manage the process.

So how do you identify the publisher?

Start with the sheet music. Typically the publisher is identified in the copyright notice. If you can’t find the sheet music or the publisher is no longer in business, then try the two largest music publishers/agencies:

Hal Leonard Corporation handles songs by thousands of artists including the BeeGees, Irving Berlin, Johnny Cash, Henry Mancini, and Walt Disney.
Alfred Music Publishing represents hundreds of music publishers and songwriters, such as Bruce Springsteen and United Artists.How to use song lyrics in your writing without risk by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.com

The search functions on these sites are awkward, and you may not find the song you want. It costs nothing to email and enquire if they manage a particular song. If they don’t, they’ll let you know.

If that doesn’t work, search ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and SOCAN. These performing rights societies manage the licensing of recorded music, but also provide contact information for music publishers.

Searching for Publishers

Let’s walk through some searches.

How to use song lyrics in your writing without risk by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.comSuppose you want to use a few lines of I Get A Kick Out Of You.

I searched the title on both BMI and SESAC and found nothing. On ASCAP, I searched Frank Sinatra, found several pages listing his recordings, and clicked on I Get A Kick Out Of You. The next page showed the writer (Cole Porter) and the publisher (Warner Brothers Music). When I clicked on Warner Brothers, a dropdown provided the contact information.

Next, I searched Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. ASCAP and SESAC turned up nothing. On BMI and SOCAN, I found the publisher, Screen Gems-EMI. I clicked on the publisher’s name and found the contact information.

Don’t be surprised if these publishers send you to back to Hal Leonard or Alfred Music, which is why I recommend starting there.

If all this searching and paying is more than you want to deal with, your alternatives are:

How to use song lyrics in your writing without risk by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.com Use the title and artist’s name only. Titles and names are not protected by copyright, so you may use them without permission except as part of your own book title or on your book cover. That raises trademark problems.
• Write your own lyrics. You may discover a new talent.
Use lyrics in the public domain. Here are some excellent sources.

Alternatively, consider whether your use may be considered fair use. Fair use is copying of copyrighted material for a limited purpose, such as education, commentary or criticism, or for a “transformative” purpose such as parody. Here’s one of the best posts out there about fair use, What Every Writer Ought to Know about Fair Use and Copyright.

For example, if you quote lyrics from Bob Dylan and Eminem to compare their treatment of women, that may be fair use. But using the same lyrics to reveal something about your character is not fair use and could be infringement.

The line between fair use and infringement is murky. Much depends on the facts of the case. Giving credit does not make a difference; you could be infringing even if you are not plagiarizing.

How to use song lyrics in your writing without risk by Helen Sedwick for BookWorks.comUnless you are reasonably confident your use is fair use, don’t rely on it. Even if you are well within safe lines, the copyright owner might sue. Think of the attorneys’ fees and the time involved. While I admire those who take on David-and-Goliath battles, I’d rather spend my time and energy writing.

Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.


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8 thoughts on “How to Use Lyrics in Your Writing Without Risk”

  1. Brilliant. So clear and concise. Think I’ll just write my own lyrics from now on.

  2. Thanks for posting. Great article.

  3. Profile photo of Elle  Mott Elle Mott says:

    As I wrap up my memoir manuscript, I hadn’t thought of this. Thanks for reeling me in, just in time. In a the-sky-is-falling scene, I give the song and artist of background music. Safe, there. But, in a transformation scene, I delve deep into lyrics; oops. I must follow-up with resources you provide. Thanks so much.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elle. We’re glad you found this information in time to spare you possible problems down the road. Our aim is to help our members avoid the pitfalls wherever possible and Helen’s advice is invaluable in that regard.

  4. This is so helpful! Thanks so much for explaining the steps. I’m going to share it with my author network — I know it will help!

  5. Excellent information. Thanks!

    When I published my first novel, it took a fair bit of sleuthing to find the copyright holder for two sets of lyrics I wanted to use; I ultimately decided the second set wasn’t crucial to the story and eliminated it. I paid $100 for permission to use the other lyric in up to 10,000 books. For my second novel, I found that one lyric I’m using is jointly owned by two companies (Hal Leonard and Alfred Music Publishing); I had to secure permission separately from each. This is not a step you want to overlook — be sure you’ve got 100% of the ownership covered.

    1. Rita, Great point. It’s a legal minefield out there!

    2. Thank you for your comment, Rita! Good for you for your due diligence and for sharing your experience to help other authors. Consider joining the BookWorks community. We’d love to have you.

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