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Using song lyrics

edited July 2017 in Writing
I have completed a novel set in the USA in 1963. Originally, I began each chapter with lyrics from songs, primarily blues music. I eliminated these when I realised that A) it could cost me plenty in publishing rights and B ) they were probably not necessary and were only there to show how clever I was.
However I would like to keep some quotes in the text from a couple of songs that are central to the story.
Do I have to get permission for this? If so, who should I direct the question to and how much is it likely to cost?
Hope someone can help.


  • I think you may have to get permission - I seem to remember reading somewhere that the rules on song lyrics are very strict. Not sure how you go about it - sorry!
  • If you are using any song lyrics you will need to get permission, and it may cost- depending on how old the song is of course.

    If you're just mentioning the title that's okay, but even a few words from a song needs permission.

    See this: http://blog.sonicbids.com/who-owns-that-song-how-to-research-copyright-ownership
  • This might be useful:

    How to Use Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer:

  • it doesn't do what the title says it does, though. I think I might sue.
  • Last year I applied for permission (Universal Music) to use three lines only of Coldplay's 'Yellow'. After two non-responses, I was given the run around for a couple of months before being refused. Sometimes it is just easier to forget the lyrics and incorporate our own precis.
  • I recently read a novel that had the titles of songs stuffed in a scene. It's weak writing to use the music to create a mood.
  • Thanks for your advice Sallyj, Baggy Books, Carol, Liz and PET, (if I can be as bold as to
    call you that).
    Probably better and less hassle to do without the lyrics then. Shame.
  • No probs with the name, Noods.

    Yes, it is a shame because we seek to promote fellow artists' work by including their lyrics in our own work. I've suffered no problems in gaining approval to quote from books (including Penguin Random House) but when it came to three lines of a song - by British artists - I was up against the proverbial brick wall.
  • You could write some lyrics yourself.
  • If you are going to use them then you MUST have permission. It could get very costly otherwise. There is no way to use them (except for the title) without doing so. You can refer to the song title but that's it.
  • Stephen King used to use a lot of Bruce Springsteen lyrics as chapter titles.. if the mood is right (and permission gained) it can add to the setting of a piece.
  • But Stephen King can afford the fees to use the lyrics.
  • And he possibly had 'mates rates'.
  • A couple of your helpful comments have mentioned creating an atmosphere with the musical references.
    Rather than an atmosphere, I wanted certain songs to be playing in a club which my hero would relate to his life in a direct way through the lyrics. I can see the desire to protect copyright but there must be a cross-over point where it can help the publishers by turning on new people to their music ..... or maybe they don't think so?
  • No. That's like saying I can sell your books for you by using your stories or I can sell more art for you by posting your art. It's an insult and suggests they aren't capable of selling on their own bat. And of course - they are, otherwise you wouldn't know them.
  • Fair comment, Liz.
  • But it is irritating you can't use things under a 'fair use' clause like you can with books - just a line to give a flavour.
  • If it's a well enough known song then paraphrasing can work quite well
  • I like that Heather. I can have my character commenting on the lyrics without printing the actual lyrics. I'll give that some thoughts. Thanks for the idea.
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