Can you quote music lyrics in a book?

Like this:

Stuck in traffic, main character is blasting Rage Against the Machine, Testify

[insert song lyrics excerpt here]

Or is that a legal issue?

What if we say:

Stuck in traffic, main character is blasting Rage Against the Machine, Testify. He strikes his palm against the dashboard in beat with the tune.

So now the reader (assumed to be familiar with the song) is playing it in his head and enjoying the scene with the thought we've provoked.

Or must we be reduced to saying "Stuck in traffic, main character is blasting a popular metal-rap song from the late 90's..."

How is this best achieved within legal limits? Get Zack de la Rocha's phone number?

3 Answers 3


Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. There is a concept in copyright law called "fair use". This means that you can use short quotes from someone else's copyrighted work without permission. See here from the US Copyright office Link.

Special deference is given to use for educational or literary purposes. Like one scholar can quote another to offer his own views on the others ideas. Or a critic can quote from someone else's work when giving a review. Neither of those apply to you, so you have to go to the next tier.

Next thing is how much of the work you quote. If you quote the entire song you are on much more dangerous ground that if you quote one line.

For non-educational use, the key criterion is: do you affect the market for the original work. If, for example, someone else wrote a poem, and you copy his entire poem into your book, then anyone who buys your book has no reason to buy a copy of his poem from him. You've hurt his potential sales. He would almost certainly win a copyright suit. A song is a little different, as someone could read the lyrics and say, Hey, I'd really like to hear the music that goes with this, and it might actually help his sales. But I wouldn't count on that.

Short answer: Don't quote the entire lyrics of a song without permission. You can probably get away with a line or two as fair use. Leave it at that.

The title of the song and the name of the group are not and cannot be copyrighted, but they can be trademarked, which is a whole different thing. Basically there the key is that you cannot attempt to confuse potential customers. If you decided to form your own band and called it Rage Again With Machines or Rage Against the Marines, you'd be setting yourself up for a trademark lawsuit. If it's an obvious parody, you can get away with it, but not if you are just trying to trick people into thinking you are the famous group. It's safe to use someone else's trademark in your book as long as you use it correctly and you use it to refer to them. Lots of books mention a character "drinking a Coke" or "driving his Chevy". You do have to be careful to use a trademark correctly. Like Coca Cola's lawyers used to regularly send letters to writers who wrote "coke" with a small-c, and they threatened restaurants with lawsuits if someone ordered a Coke and they gave him some other brand. (So that now, if you order a Coke in a restaurant in the U.S. and they don't serve Coca Cola products, they are likely to say, "Is Pepsi okay?" or something similar.)

Just BTW: I don't know the audience for your book. Are you sure that every reader will be familiar with this particular group and this particular song? Personally, I've only vaguely heard of the group and I've never heard of that particular song. Maybe I'm not the audience for your book. I've often seen writers fall into the trap of thinking that everyone thinks and acts just like them. Like "Everybody reads this magazine" or "Everybody is in favor of X", when the reality is more like "I and my close friends do this". Of course if it doesn't really matter, if you're just trying to set a mood that the character is singing along to a popular song, and exactly what the song is doesn't make much difference, readers who don't know will just say "whatever" and read on, then no problem. But if you're expecting readers to know the lyrics and this is important to the story, then readers who DON'T know the lyrics will be missing out.

  • That is a very very helpful response. Thank you very much on copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html, I would have taken the safe route were it not for that reference.
    – 1Up
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:39
  • 1
    If you publish a line or other "brief" excerpt, you probably wouldn't hurt sales of the song. If your book became successful, you could even help sales (at least a few people would be inspired to by the song after seeing your excerpt.) That is an argument that should weigh in your favor in court, if it came to that.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 9, 2016 at 23:24

You can quote copyrighted material so long as your quotation falls under "fair use". I am reasonably sure that if you got three intellectual-property lawyers in a room, you could get four and possibly five opinions on exactly what constitutes fair use, but the legal rule (in the US) is that four factors are to be balanced:

  • the purpose and character of your use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market.

Your use: if you are reviewing a song for a web-site, a substantial quotation would be considered fair. If you are just writing another song, well, much less o.

The nature of the work: if it's a best-selling novel the author spent his life writing, that is one thing. If it is a accidental exclamation, quite another. (Todd Beamer's widow tried to claim a copyright on "Let's roll"; Donald Trump tried to copyright "You're fired". Neither had much luck.)

The portion taken: three lines from an encyclopedia can be fair use; three lines from a haiku, probably not.

The effect: if there is a big commercial market for the original work and your quoting it deprives the author of a significant part of it, that ain't fair use.

Remember: IANAL!


This sounds like an issue of fair use. For example naming the song should be fine especially as you are not saying anything bad about it and as titles are not subject to copyright (trademark might be a different issue if you, say, called your book by the song's title). The tricky part comes when you start citing lyrics. A few is okay sometimes depending on context but all of them is massively unlikely to be considered fair. The cut of point is... somewhere.

The general advice is that if in doubt ask the copyright holder for permission.

It should go without saying that I am not a law expert.

  • 1
    Even if you are ridiculing a song, you are allowed to name the song, and quote a chunk of it. Feb 3, 2015 at 5:36
  • Yes indeed you can hold a negative POV but if the copyright owner is prone to litigation it might be wise to run the fair use level past an expert. Feb 20, 2015 at 1:20
  • 1
    Maybe, but if you are ridiculing something, it becomes even more likely it constitutes fair use. Feb 20, 2015 at 9:25

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