More About Song Lyrics

In a post a couple of weeks ago, “My Epigraph,” I touched on the subject of “fair use”:

Fair use” is a contested area. If you plan to quote other writers in your work, read up on it. I believe there is, and should be, a huge middle ground between “anything goes” and “consult a lawyer,” Do learn the lay of the land, because the cost of putting a foot wrong can be high. Word on the street for a long time has been “don’t ever quote from popular song lyrics without getting permission.” This has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the fact that the big music publishers have been zealous about defending their turf. Your use of two lines from a popular song may be fair by any reasonable¬†definition, but it takes very deep pockets to defend it in court. Might often does make right, and it makes us jumpy too.

Note especially the sentence in bold. Here’s something better than “word on the street”: a link to novelist-blogger David Hewson’s October 23 blog post, “Never quote a rock lyric in a book unless you’re rich.” It’s his grueling first-person discovery of how permissions work in the music biz.

Do read through to the end. Musician Bruce Hornsby did grant Hewson permission to use a line from his lyrics, and all he asked in return was a signed copy of the finished novel. I like to think there are more Bruce Hornsbys out there, though perhaps they’re more often found in the less glamorous corners of the music world.

The real moral of the story is this: Assume nothing. Do your homework — especially when you’re dealing with lyrics.



3 thoughts on “More About Song Lyrics

  1. Use of song lyrics and poems comes up in many of the novels I edit. Years ago I edited a nonfiction book for a traditional publisher that contained song lyrics, and the authors were willing to pay for the use … until they learned the copyright holder wanted $10,000 for those rights. The authors decided to describe the meaning behind the words instead.


  2. Yikes! My editorial diet is probably 80% nonfiction, and of the sort where quoting from other works is expected and usually covered by “fair use”: journalism, history/biography, literary or cultural criticism, and so on. The authors typically obtain permission for all the significant quotes and give proper credit, often on the copyright page. They rarely even try to use song lyrics. Poetry, yes — poets and their publishers have nowhere near the clout of the big music publishers. (The poet who earns $10K from a published book is pretty unusual.) My understanding is that it’s often the music publishers that demand the huge fees, not necessarily the songwriter. More’s the pity! In David Hewson’s account, Bruce Hornsby retained control over his work — and he turned out to be more than reasonable.


  3. Good advice, Susanna. In my middle grade novel I cite several musicians, bands and songs from the 1960s and early 1970s. My editor made me write a list that I included at the end of the book and made sure I didn’t use the lyrics in the story. I didn’t and even changed a chapter title that was too close to a song title. So, yes, it’s better to be prepared.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.