I'm writing a book of film criticism, in which I refer to lyrics from the soundtrack as a way to empathise the narrative.

Am I required to obtain permission for use of these lyrics? Or, because this is a work of critical nonfiction, am I just required to cite the songs authors?


4 Answers 4


It depends on how significant the use is. For just a line or two, attribution of who sang and/or wrote it in context would suffice:

"Crossroads...seem to come and go...." --Greg Allman

To publish the full lyrical text, I would contact the copyright holder and obtain permission--there may be a small licensing fee, equivalent to if you'd purchased the sheet music.

In this "excerpt" case, the above qualifies as fair use because the quote is insignificant in comparison to the body of the complete work (a variable definition) and if your lyric-quotes are relevant to the original ideas being expressed. then you are sitting on pretty firm ground legally. (also variable, but if your criticism is ~95 percent original content and ~5 percent "lyrical quotations," I'd say you are well within the boundaries of US copyright law. along with a full citation in the appendices: I'm not sure of the exact form (it depends on your chosen style)--I normally use,

Composer(s), track name, album name, &c year Record label name

In the case of this post, I used the first line of Greg Allman's first song to illustrate the answer (and provide an example) to a specific question about using a quotation from popular music in the body of a larger critique regarding film--intended to publicly inform readers about one particular instance of US Media Law. Even the post itself meets the aforementioned criteria of being "mostly original content created by the author," (me) and the lyric-quote is insignificant when compared to the rest of the post AND my use of it is relevant to the information I provided. This meets the definition of fair use and doesn't violate copyright.

  • This advice isn't GENERALLY accurate - that is, it's generally considered a copyright violation to quote even one line of a song without permission. Fair Use doctrine seems to be very limited in regard to lyrics, possibly because even one line can be a significant portion of the original work. So in general, authors and publishers are advised to get permission for even short quotations from songs. The only difference here is the "film criticism" aspect, but I can't personally see a reason for it to create an exception to the general rule.
    – Kate S.
    Nov 21, 2015 at 22:37
  • ^^^not true. " it's generally considered a copyright violation to quote even one line of a song without permission." <--- it's fine so long as...well see answer....
    – Tapper7
    Jan 8, 2017 at 15:56

I am not a lawyer, so please get competent legal counsel if other measures do not suffice.

What you are doing probably falls under the heading of "fair use," (for criticism), which is a defense against copyright infringement. Nevertheless, it would be wise to approach the copyright holder, and get their "blessing" (or at least acquiescence) to your own work.

There are several possible replies. 1) The copyright holder grants permission. It is fair use, after all, and they may benefit financially from a "debate" about their film. 2) The copyright holder wants a small financial consideration, basically a "tribute" or acknowledgement of their copyright. That's usually worth paying to avoid legal hassles. 3) The copyright holder refuses to give permission under any circumstances. Here, you need to see a lawyer,even if you are in the right. In that case, the company will fight your use, whether or not it has merit. So "forewarned is forearmed."

Two Live Crew tried to get permission to do a parody of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman." The copyright holder refused, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court before the copyright holder relented. On the other hand, Crew's experience made other copyright holders more willing to "cut a deal."


I am not a copyright specialist, but I think the general rule of thumb would be yes, you always have to ask permission.

However, there are rules for fair use and quotations that may apply. Look them up.

I would look up some writers union where you live and see if you can ask their lawyer. I did once when I had a similar problem (this was in Sweden so it may or may not apply to your case).


You don't even have to cite the song (although there is nothing wrong with doing so) as long as you cite the movie. This is handy as sometimes identifying the song can be a challenge. The true difficulty is (as in all fair use cases) being clear that it is a fair use.

In your particular case since you may wish to quote the entire song to illustrate your point, I would emphasize that this is a transformative use and that it is a critical use. The specific method I would use is to intersperse commentary on the lyric and film dialog (if applicable) throughout the song.

  • 1
    If the soundtrack was made for the movie, or if the movie uses music the copyright of which has not expired, the movie must give credit to the creator and copyright holder. This is usually done in the opening and/or closing credits. It is therefore not at all a challenge to indentify the song, as you claim, but quite easy (if you have a full version of the movie and are not viewing a clip on YouTube). Also, if the (version of the) song was not originally created for the movie, you certainly must cite the song itself, in the same way as you would cite a poem that is cited in a novel.
    – user5645
    Apr 26, 2015 at 8:45

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