Occasionally, novels will include song lyrics in the story, or start out chapters with songs or quotes. In many cases, these lyrics or quotes are from copyrighted materials and would presumably require royalties be paid to the original author.

Does the publisher typically negotiate the purchase of these rights, or is it the responsibility of the author? Who actually pays the necessary fees?

2 Answers 2


Quotes from real people and books are generally considered fair use so they can be used without paying anyone. Song lyrics and poems are a gray area. Some people will tell you you can use portions of song lyrics - a line or two - but others will say you can't use any without permission.

If you're not using the whole song, you'd probably be able to get permission to use it without paying anything. It'd be free publicity to the owner of the lyrics - most likely the record company. If you're using the entire song, that's completely different and you might be require to pay for permission to use them. How much and whether it's a flat fee or royalties will depend on how it's negotiated.

Unless you're a NYT Bestselling author and the publishing house really really wants you, the author will have to pay this out. Publishing houses aren't going to cut into their own profits unless they really have to.

  • On a tangent . . . I saw an interesting advertisement, I think in Writer's Digest. The people who make Formica wanted to let writers know that Formica's a trademarked name. Sort of like saying someone used a Kleenex. I don't know if they thought people should have to pay to use their trademark or what, but I thought it was funny. So, remember, use tissues, not Kleenex. And don't you dare Hoover your carpet!
    – foggyone
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 21:38
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    If a company fails to protect their trademark, they can lose it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genericized_trademark Commented Jan 28, 2011 at 4:15
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    I always chuckle at the bored lawyers who try to stop people saying Kleenex for tissue or Google for searching. Their marketing people must have permanent face-palm injuries.
    – MGOwen
    Commented Feb 21, 2011 at 6:18
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    @MGOwen: The legal principle is somewhat the same as some college campuses which will periodically block briefly off a private road which is otherwise open for public use. If the owner of a private road goes too long without taking any action to demonstrate that the road isn't a public right of way, the owner risks having the road become a public right of way and forfeiting the right to close it in future. The roads are closed not because the colleges have any immediate desire to close them, but rather they want to maintain ability to e.g. put a building at the road's present location.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 19:07
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    @MGOwen: Likewise, many companies really wouldn't mind if writers use the word "Formica" provided that they didn't risk losing the ability to guard their trademark against use by potential competitors, but the only way they can protect the latter is to periodically take at least nominal action against the former.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 19:09

Song lyrics and poetry can be a problem. In fiction publishing, most houses will require you to get permission to quote even as little as a single line from a copyrighted popular song or from a well-known poem that's still in copyright, because many copyright owners are extremely litigious and the legal precedents on whether a single line is "fair use" are not as clear as publishers would prefer.

That said, many copyright holders are happy to let you use a line or two, if you can manage to track them down.

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