I tried to find copyright information about music lyrics, but it is too confusing, because it is related to the usage.

There are lots of websites providing lyrics, but it seems they are somehow illegal (though no complaint against them). Most of them put copyright notice that the copyright holder is the owner, and some indicate that the lyrics have been contributed by users (probably claiming that they have not been copied from the commercial CD).

However, the case of copyright for published materials like books is more serious. Consider a book about music, is it needed to obtain copyright permission for including a song lyric?

It is popular to translate the lyrics of a song to another language, and the final book contains the original lyrics and its translation.

Is copyright permission needed, or it is treated as referenced materials (no need for copyright permission as we are referring to/citing the original work). Moreover, the main part of a song is its music rather than lyrics.

6 Answers 6


While I am not a lawyer, if you purchase a physical CD (bit of a rarity these days, I know) and look at the booklet which has the liner notes, you should see copyright notices for each song. If lyrics have been provided, the notice will be at the end of each set of lyrics. (KISS used to copyright theirs under an entity called "Opporknockity Tunes," which always made me laugh.)

And yes, you would need permission to quote a song lyric in a book. Look at the frontspiece for Stephen King's novel The Stand, and you'll see the copyright and permissions notes for all the songs he references.

As far as "the main part of a song is its music rather than lyrics," I don't think that's true — you can copyright an a cappella song, which uses no musical instruments beyond the human voice.

I don't know about translations.

As a general rule, if you are referencing or using someone else's work in yours, and yours is for profit in any capacity, then you should make an effort to get permission first.

Websites just listing lyrics are more of a gray area, since the only "profit" is from the ads, but if the person on the page is using an ad blocker, then even that source of revenue is eliminated.

  • By "referencing the song/someone's work in yours", do you mean quoting it, using it in the plot somehow, or simply naming it? Would I need permission to write that a character was listening to [singer-here]'s song named [song-name]?
    – Mussri
    Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 13:17
  • @Mussri: Referencing a real work by its true name is never a problem. As a side note, not only are music lyrics copyrighted as usual, but so is the textual representation of the music itself: Musical notation, guitar tabs and so on. The terms and limitations of the copyrights tend to differ though. Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 15:19
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    @Mussri: I would say that something like "John sat listening to Josh Groban's L'Ora dell'Addio until he thought his heart would break from weeping" would be fine from a legal standpoint, but once you start quoting lyrics, you should get permission. But if you have any doubt, talk to a lawyer and find out about getting permission. If your use or reference is not insulting or defamatory, it shouldn't be difficult. Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 18:55
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    To be fair, whether or not your work that is for profit is not an actual measurement for infringement, though it may be factored when people are deciding whether it's worth litigating against you. Warner Bros. likes to crack down on Harry Potter fan fiction sites, but magazines and newspaper regularly use snippets from copyrighted material in reviews (or even articles) because it is falls under fair use (or close enough that it's not worth the time and money to litigate).
    – Joel Shea
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 9:29
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    @JoelShea Well, actually, whether the copying is for profit is a FACTOR courts use in deciding whether it is "fair use". copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107 lists as the first criterion, "the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;" It's not the only factor, and the fact that you're not making a profit doesn't mean you can copy anything you like.
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 18:02

Yes. The lyrics are covered by copyright and you need permission to reproduce them. I think at least some of the "lyrics search engines" on the web pay their dues to the copyright holders (Wikipedia says: Lyrics licenses could be obtained in North America through one of the two aggregators; Gracenote Inc. and LyricFind.)

Translations are also covered by copyright. If you are the one translating, yours.

It's worth remembering that copyright exists even if you don't register it with the Copyright Office.


Yes, they are copyrighted. BUT, if you aren't quoting them in their entirety you don't necessarily need to obtain copyright permissions if your use is a fair one according to the rules of Fair Use. This includes uses for profit.

See my answer on this question for a breakdown of how to determine if your use is fair: Can you reprint screen shots of a game application or program without permission?

An original translation is a difficult area. If you translated it, you would be fine using that translation. But using the entire original lyric alongside it would be less likely to be considered fair.

Also, as my note in the above link indicates: you should see how your publisher handles it. Many will attempt to get permissions even when they don't really need to (such as in the Stephen King example cited in an answer here, assuming it was a part of the song's lyric rather than the whole thing.

The only "problem" with simply always asking permission is that a copyright holder can say no even if your right is fair. You are not then required to abide by their decision, if you think your use is fair, but it makes things needlessly more difficult. There's a poet whose son says no to EVERY proposed use even, in his words, a single word from any of his father's poems. This is an extreme example, but it's not uncommon at all to ask and be refused or asked to provide compensation that you don't actually have to.

  • Please keep in mind that, even if a use is "fair use", a copyright holder can still take action against you. (i.e., a cease and desist letter, etc.) Commented Dec 15, 2012 at 19:26
  • Sure, but a C&D is meaningless without something to back up the claim. I've dealt with quite a few of them in the past...most often it's a reflex reaction and is ultimately meaningless. It can be another way that copyright holders attempt to exert rights they don't actually have. So it's an action without consequence (assuming that one is legitimately using it fairly).
    – Chris
    Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 5:32
  • I think it's fair to say that a court would be unlikely to take seriously a claim that you had violated copyright because you used "a single word" from someone's poem. Like, I once wrote a book that used the word "the". Now I will sue everyone who uses the word "the". I doubt I'd get far. Of course someone can initiate a ridiculous lawsuit, and it may cost you something to defend against it, but stupid as our courts can be at times, I don't think he'd win on one like that.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 15:49
  • Of course the court won't take it seriously! I was just using an extreme (and real-life) example of copyright owners trying to scare people away from fair uses by using a C&D.
    – Chris
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 15:35

Yes you require permission from the copyright holder of the lyrics in question to reproduce them in a book. It is not treated as referenced materials.

Whether you intend to profit from the book or wherever you intend to reproduce the lyrics is entirely irrelevant.

The copyright holder holds the rights to those lyrics and he/she/they can stop you from reproducing them without his/her/their permission.

If the lyrics are demonstrably in the public domain you can reproduce them without permission, but not copyrighted ones.

  • Well, it's not "entirely irrelevant". There's the whole "fair use" doctrine, and one of the criteria in fair use is whether the work is for profit.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 15:46
  • Fair use is country-centric. You are assuming (as most people appear to) that the OP is referring to copyright in the USA. That may not be the case and it would not cover copyright issues in other countries. Fair use is mostly prevalent in the USA, it is not necessarily prevalent elsewhere and to give advice based on fair use may be misleading, hence my comment to ignore for profit. Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 15:53

Music lyrics are "poems," and are therefore copyrightable independent of music.

That makes it invalid to say that "the main part of a song is its music rather than lyrics." There's little or no truth to that argument, and even if there was, it would not prevent lyrics from being copyrighted.

  • An extremely minor point: Your first sentence makes it sound as if there's a separate copyright for the lyrics and the music of a song, which isn't the case (at least not in the US). However, the fact that lyrics and music are copyrighted as a single unit (see the US Copyright Office's form PA and form SR supports your main point. Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 2:53
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    @NeilFein: I said that lyrics are "copyrightable" independently of music. If Rodgers writes music and Hammerstein (or Hart) writes lyrics, they might copyright them separately, and later bring them together. Or they might not.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 3:12
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    Okay, I see your point now. Lyrics, like a poem, have the potential to be copyrighted separately, as does music. So both are vital parts of a composition. Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 3:35
  • The lyrics would be copyrighted even if they were just printed on the sleeve and no cd even existed. The same goes for the entire sleeve print itself. they would be copyrightable even if they weren't printed anywhere. Still doesn't mean that you can go around suing people for saying "yeah, yeah, yeah". But - repeating the word mayday for 3 minutes surely would be copyrightable. Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 5:42

Others answered the key points. Let me address just one lesser issue.

"the main part of a song is its music rather than lyrics." Maybe true and maybe not. I recall Gilbert and Sullivan had something of a falling out over whether the lyrics (Gilbert) or the music (Sullivan) was more important. But even if true, the fact that a part of a copyrighted work is less important than some other part doesn't mean you can freely copy it. Like, if someone said that chapter 3 of a book is not a very important chapter and not really central to what the author was trying to say, therefore I'm going to copy the entire chapter into a book of my own without permission .... I can't imagine that a court would listen for a moment to an argument that this is okay because the chapter is "not the main part" of the book.

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