If I put several lines of a copyrighted song in my text, and mention the band name, how can I be certain that my attribution is sufficient and guarantees against legal action?

From what I've been able to find, I need to list the song title, writing credit, date and company of copyright in the front matter. Is there anything else I need to do?


  • See also: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1194/… Sep 11 '11 at 14:48
  • 1
    To get better answers, you should probably specify the nature of your writing - fiction vs. non-fiction, and the type of non-fiction if it falls in that category.
    – Kate S.
    Sep 11 '11 at 15:05
  • Sorry for being vague. It is a fiction story. A character hears a song on the radio and the lyrics are particularly meaningful for him. Unfortunately, there is virtually no chance of me getting permission to print the lyrics so I will have to cut them. Thank you.
    – coldstatue
    Sep 11 '11 at 17:06

IANAL, but:

If this is fiction... it's not anywhere near that easy. Song lyrics are copyrighted by their authors, and you're supposed to get permission (pay money) to use them. You can use songs that are in the public domain, but I get the feeling you want something more modern. So you'd need to track down the owners of the copyright and figure out/negotiate their fees. It's a pretty big deal.

If you're going through a publisher, they may help you with this or they may tell you that you can't use the lines. There will almost certainly be an indemnity line in your contract with which you certify that you've got the legal right to all parts of your work. That means that if the songwriter or music publishing company sues, you're on your own for the defense.

If you're self-pubbing, you need to get permission yourself.

I've seen people argue that using the lyrics comes under the 'fair use' rule, but I'm not aware of any jurisdiction that recognizes this right for fiction. You can usually use the title of the song, if that helps.

I'm not sure what the rules are for non-fiction. I think fair use has a broader scope, there, but I don't know details.

(Edited to clarify role of publisher)

  • Thank you. This is for a fiction book and the scene involves a character listening to the band on the radio. Sounds like I'm out of luck here and will need to remove the lyrics. I publish my own books, so I don't want to get into a potential legal mess. Thank you.
    – coldstatue
    Sep 11 '11 at 17:04
  • If the song's popular enough that your readers would recognize it, you could just give the title. Or you could paraphrase the lyrics, maybe...
    – Kate S.
    Sep 11 '11 at 17:08

Simple answer, you can't use someone else's copyrighted material in your own fiction without either paying them for the license or having them grant you a license for no charge. This is as true for song lyrics as it is for a poem, essay or someone else's work of fiction. It makes no difference if you attribute the work or not.

Here's an article from the UK's Guardian which explains the mess an author found himself in for quoting a single line from a couple of songs: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/01/blake-morrison-lyrics-copyright

The doctrine of "fair use" does not apply to creative works, such as fiction. It does apply in instances of non-fiction, particularly in academic scholarship or commentary. Here is a brief summary on fair use from the US copyright office: http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html

If you absolutely must have the song lyrics in your own work, you'll need to get clearance from the owner. The easiest way to do that is to follow the footsteps of those who record cover songs. Go to Limelight (http://www.songclearance.com/pricing) or Harry Fox's Songfile (http://www.harryfox.com/public/songfile.jsp) and use their tools to identify the lyricist. There is a good chance that you'll find the performer you attribute the song to didn't actually write it. But take solace in the fact that if the song is popular enough for you to want to pay to use some of its lyrics, one of those two entities will help take your money!


It ultimately depends on how much of the song you are using and the way in which it is being used. If you are using a couple of lines in a music review, then you don't need to get permission. You are most likely already mentioning the band, since it's a review of their music, and the use of a couple of lines would be recognized as fair use.

Beyond that, it starts to become more complicated. You first need to determine whether or not you need permission, and you can start by using this link from Stanford University. They have an online site that has a lot of information pertaining to Copyright and Fair Use. If you aren't able to decide after reading this, then you can proceed to Chapter 9, where they go into more details regarding Fair Use.

There's a lot of information on this site, and it may take some time to read through it and understand it, but you can help ease your mind on whether or not you're doing the right thing by taking the time to look it over.

  • Sorry, this is for a fiction book. Thank you for the links. I don't think my inclusion of the lyrics falls under fair use.
    – coldstatue
    Sep 11 '11 at 17:03

Fair Use is not relevant for this, as it is fiction - it is intended to allow academic or other non-fiction to reference existing work for the purpose of comment and critique.

One way around this in a fictional work would be to have the character sing along with some of the words, some of them wrongly heard, so that it is clear what the song is, but you are not using the lyrics fully. As long as you are careful, this should be OK, although, of course, IANAL. Crediting them as well would be a positive. An example may be:

Johnny turned on the radio. As he organised his room, his favorite song of the moment came on, so he bounced around the room singing "...nothing lasts forever ..." as he tidied his underwear drawer; "... in the cold September rain ..." as he put his boots away; "I need some ties, on my own..." as he sorted the wardrobe; "... you're not the only one" as he organised his sock drawer. He broke off for the air guitar riff, of course, because that's the law.

(OK, maybe not, but this sort of idea).

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