Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Using song lyrics in writing

Stacey from Edinburgh sent in the follow question: In my debut novel I have quoted some song lyrics, just a few lines, but some of my friends who have read the book say I should delete the words because I’m breaking the copyright law. I don’t see how I’m doing anything wrong because I’m not playing the music, just using some lines to illustrate a point, but are my friends right? Am I breaking any law?

The easy answer to this question simply doesn’t exist. There is such a thing as ‘fair use’ which entitles you to use a few lines without transgressing copyright. However, there is no hard and fast rule over what constitutes ‘fair use’ of song lyrics and you could find yourself in a deep financial hole if you use someone’s lyrics without first gaining permission to do so.

You would need to contact the copyright holder (or their agent) and ask for permission to use the lyrics. You’ll be charged (usually quite a hefty fee) and will need to include certain information in your book covering details regarding the copyright.

If the song is deemed to be ‘in the public domain’ then the situation changes:

Buying permission to use song lyrics is never cheap, but using them and being taken to court afterwards will be even more costly, so it’s best to avoid including them unless they are absolutely essential to your novel.

The following links are all worth reading as they could save you a great deal of money.

One other thing to bear in mind is that song titles are not subject to copyright and can be used freely, unless they have been protected by trademark or other registration.

Critique Service for Writers
Flash 500 Flash Fiction Competition
Flash 500 Humour Verse Competition


  1. This is incredibly useful, thank you. I just did not think that you'd need permission to use lyrics when the music is not involved, but having read this, it makes perfect sense.

    I presume songs such as national anthems are considered in the public domain?


  2. Hi Helena, I'm afraid you cannot assume anything is in the public domain. It's necessary to do a bit of checking. My golden rule is this: if in doubt, don't take a chance as it could be expensive!