I am contemplating writing a fictional character [nerd] who speaks in a pop culture references. I appreciate this question somewhat overlaps

Referencing modern pop culture in science fiction

The concept is a period piece so I see the use of quotes dating the work as an advantage.

The character would quote single lines of pop songs, though probably not exactly. What I'm worried about is the legality of quoting copyrighted material.

Is a single line precisely quoted a copyright infringement? What if it's approximately quoted? What if there's a foil character who attributes the quotes?

For example, say something bad happens

A: They must be out of their brilliant minds

B: I heard that somewhere [thinks]

A: furniture

B: what?

A: [Hums tunelessly]

B: oh yeah... 1986. Peaked at 21.

A: [gapes] high five dude

Any thoughts would be appreciated.


3 Answers 3


Citing song lyrics in a novel is not fair use. You need permission to use song lyrics in a novel.

Jane Friedman cautions:

Because songs and poems are so short, it’s dangerous to use even 1 line without asking for permission, even if you think the use could be considered fair.

And Writer's Digest explains:

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.”

  • @Amadeus strange law Jan 4, 2019 at 16:24
  • 1
    A lot of good comments here and some useful links. I note that the linked Jane Friedman page above states ”No permission is needed to mention song titles, movie titles, names, etc. You do not need permission to include song titles, movie titles, TV show titles—any kind of title—in your work. You can also include the names of places, things, events, and people in your work without asking permission. These are facts.” Jan 4, 2019 at 19:24
  • @user3473715 Indeed. Because you need to be able to write a book set in the real world dealing with real world experiences. You can have your character read Harry Potter and listen to Coldplay in the same way that your character can wear Levi's jeans and drive a Porsche. You are allowed to refer to other works of art, but you are not allowed to use them.
    – user34178
    Jan 4, 2019 at 19:31

According to this question, you'd be in trouble if you quoted entire songs, but single lines should be okay. Making the quotes approximate would ensure you don't run into any legal issues, but would also likely prevent your readers from getting the references, which would defeat the entire purpose. So only do that as a last resort, if your publisher objects to the unedited quotes.

What if there's a foil character who attributes the quotes?

I think this is a bad idea; not from a legal standpoint, but from a writing standpoint. The sample dialogue you provided seems very, very clunky, and depending on how bad the "bad thing" is, it may also come across as very jarring and out-of-place to have the characters suddenly high-fiving each other over pop-culture references.

I must confess I'm not familiar with your example song lyric, but if I was, and I had to read six lines of dialogue explaining it, it would be a bit tedious. And if I understood all your references, and you explained them every single time... it would get annoying.

If you really want to attribute all this character's quotes - or have some way of explaining them for those who don't recognise them - I'd take the approach recommended in this question and have some kind of "Acknowledgements" section at the back of your book where you can list all the songs you referenced. That way you're still attributing the lyrics without having to stop the action every five minutes while you do so.

  • 5
    THIS IS WRONG. Songs are not treated like novels or other forms of writing. People have been successfully sued for single lines, or just using three distinctive notes of somebody else's song. See the links provided by user57423's answer. Writer's Digest is an authoritative source with a lawyer providing the answer.
    – Amadeus
    Jan 4, 2019 at 15:55

Its a little more nuanced than just saying its "wrong." Coyyright law recognizes fair use. Yes, the hook from "My Sweet Lord" was found to an infringe the song "He's so fine," but this does not mean you can't repeat certain lines of a song in a novel. Use in a novel can be considered both transformative and de minimus. And unfortunately, even court's sometimes get things wrong- (See Garbage Pail kids case- which was settled).

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