Can I Use Song Lyrics in my Manuscript?

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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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