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Can I Use Song Lyrics in my Manuscript?

Categories: Copyrights, Legal Questions.
Q: What are the legal ramifications of reproducing song lyrics in a manuscript? If permission from each copyright holder is necessary, what’s the best way to secure these permissions? Also, can I use a song title as the title of my book?—June Youngblood

A: Song lyrics are copyrighted, which means you need permission to use them. According to our legal expert Amy Cook, there isn’t any specific law about how much you can take under fair use, but it’s common for the music industry to say you need permission for even one line of a song.

“The music industry is pretty vigilant about song lyrics,” Cook says. “This is especially true if you’re using the lyrics in a novel to progress the story or add atmosphere. If you’re a music critic reviewing a CD, you have more leeway under fair use.”

One way you can check to see if the song is still under copyright protection is to visit www.copyright.gov. This online site lists all copyright records dating back to 1978. For anything before that, you’ll need to contact the U.S. Copyright Office and may have to pay to have the records checked for you.

Another way to find the owner of the copyrights is to contact the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). These two major music performance rights organizations don’t grant permission, but they can help you find the publisher of the song you’re looking to use.

Once you find the rights owner, you must ask for his permission. He could offer you the rights for free, completely deny you the rights or ask you to rename your dog after him. The price is completely up to the music publisher.

“As a practical matter, you don’t need to worry about getting permissions until your work is going to be published,” Cook says. “And your publisher may help you in securing permissions. Most publishers provide their authors with their permission guidelines and forms.”

As for song titles, however, titles of any kind (book, song) aren’t copyrightable. But they occasionally can be subject to trademark or unfair competition laws.

“If you used a really famous song title or part of a song as a title —say, ‘Yellow Submarine’— that’s so closely tied to a specific group (or artists), then you’d probably get a letter from their lawyers,” Cook says.

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6 Responses to Can I Use Song Lyrics in my Manuscript?

  1. CorinaKrone says:

    What if I want to use my own original lyrics. How do I format them in the novel? What are the rules? How do I format? Thank you

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    Thomas Hemmingway

    Lierary Agent,

    THL-East, Inc.

    Tommy.Hemmenway@yahoo.com

  3. Joseph John says:

    I had actually considered using song lyrics to introduce different parts of my book. While I pondered the legality of such an action, I stumbled upon this article. Very informative and timely.

    One question–you do not mention using excerpts from books anywhere in your post. What is the legality of quoting a line or two from a famous author’s work? I’ve seen it done often to introduce chapters or sections of a book. Is permission required for that as well?

    Thank you for sharing your advice with us aspiring authors.

    Regards,

    Joseph John

  4. mary ulrich says:

    Are the words in some songs just eminent domain? I am thinking of The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, Ave Maria, Amazing Grace?

    Thanks. Mary

  5. Donna says:

    Great subject! So then if I wanted to refer to a specific song it would be considered abusing copyright? Or give a link to a YouTube video? I was considering one or both of these, but wasn’t sure if I could. Thanks if you know this, Brian!
    : Donna

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