Music is a beautiful, emotional method of expression. Artists and songwriters pour their hearts and souls into each piece they compose. Similarly, authors dedicate a substantial portion of their lives to expressing themselves through the stories they write. Given the similarities between songwriting and authoring a story, it’s no wonder you’d like to learn how to quote song lyrics to use them correctly in your manuscript!
However, it’s important to understand that quoting song lyrics isn’t as simple as just typing a songwriter’s words into your story. Authors working with traditional publishers and indie authors who are self-publishing both need to ensure that they’re not infringing on a song’s copyright.
Before you start the process of learning how to quote song lyrics legally, make sure you choose the right lyrics from the right song to enhance your story. In other words, really think about why you want to quote a particular song.
Writers use song lyrics in their stories for all sorts of reasons. In some cases, quoting a song can add richness to a story. For example, maybe your main character has a favorite song that you’d like them to sing in the shower to express their mood. Or maybe you want to set the tone between chapters by including a few lines or verses from a song that’s relevant to your plot. In fact, quoting song lyrics can even hint at foreshadowing a plot twist that the reader has yet to come upon!
Another time authors might cite song lyrics is when they’re writing a nonfiction work or including some historical facts within a fictional novel. Consider, for instance, a story about World War II. The characters might sing a popular, upbeat contemporary song like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to lift their spirits. And your readers may even recognize the song!
Regardless of your reason for quoting song lyrics in your story, it’s crucial that you do so legally. You cannot simply include words that someone else wrote into your story without their permission. That’s why it’s so important to learn the legal way to quote a song.
As a self-publishing indie author, you might think that your story will fly under the radar. After all, if you don’t make the bestseller list, only a few people will notice that you used song lyrics, and you probably won’t get sued for copyright infringement. Right?
Quoting a song legally is extremely important for two main reasons. The first is to protect yourself from legal action. Most songs have a copyright, and all songs are someone’s intellectual property. They belong to the person who wrote them or sometimes the production company that paid to produce the recording. If you fail to get written permission from the appropriate party or parties, you could be sued. A lawsuit can take years to settle and cost you countless dollars. In addition to the time and money you might lose, your reputation as a writer can also take a hit.
Your reputation and integrity are the second main reason why you need to learn how to cite song lyrics legally. Much like plagiarism—using someone else’s work and claiming it as your own—is detrimental in the literary and academic worlds, using lyrics without permission can destroy an author’s career. Your target audience will lose respect for you and your work, and they’ll wonder if anything you’ve ever written is actually your own.
So play it safe and learn how to quote song lyrics legally. After all, you wouldn’t want your masterpiece—the story that you poured your heart and soul into—to be copied and used without permission. And neither do the songwriters whom you want to quote!
When you choose a song to quote in your story, one of your first steps should be to see if you can legally quote it without the artist’s permission. In some cases, using a small portion of a song might be covered under fair use. In this section of copyright law, an individual can use a little bit of copyrighted content without permission—and without infringing on copyright law.
Unfortunately, fair use of music is tricky. You usually have to use at least one full lyrical line in order for the song lyrics to have an impact on your story, and full lines are often too large a sample to qualify for fair use.
Another option to legally quote song lyrics without the artist’s permission is to look into whether the song is protected by copyright or if it’s within the public domain. This can get a bit confusing. However, if the song you want to quote is available under public domain, you might be able to use the lyrics without contacting the song’s copyright owner and without the fear of legal repercussions.
Public domain basically means that a piece of content, such as a song, is not protected under a copyright. There are a few reasons that a song might be available via public domain:
If you’re quoting a song that falls into the public domain, great! Keep in mind, though, that it’s still best practice to add a citation acknowledging that you’re borrowing someone else’s intellectual property. Public domain only means you might not need to obtain written permission to use the lyrics.
So what do you do if the song you want to use is protected by copyright law? You request permission to use it from the artist or copyright holder.
In some life situations, you might think it’s better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Because using song lyrics without permission can land you in legal trouble, that is decidedly not the case—you’re publishing someone else’s words!
Fortunately, you can get permission to use song lyrics. You might have to contact a few different people, including the artist or songwriter, the production or publishing company, or the artist’s estate. Basically, find out who owns the rights to the song.
Once you’ve identified who can give you legal permission to use the song lyrics, it’s time to reach out to them. Search for their contact information online. You can often find their email address, mailing address, phone number, or whatever their preferred contact method might be. Professional artists and music production companies are used to these types of requests, so chances are their contact information will be readily available.
Before you get in touch with the song’s copyright owner, be ready to answer the questions they’ll ask. Here are a few examples of what they might want to know:
After you’ve sent the appropriate information to the copyright owners, there will likely be some back-and-forth correspondence. This is necessary to lay out the terms of the permission. They might require a fee or have you sign a contract that limits you to only using particular lyrics of the song.
This all might seem daunting, but try to stay positive! The artist might be thrilled that you’re using their work in your story. It’s basically free marketing for them, since they’re not paying you anything and they’ll get some publicity by their lyrics being published in your work. Just make sure you cite them appropriately!
You likely learned at some point in school that anytime you quote someone else’s work, you always need to cite your source. Citations show your readers that you’re including another individual’s intellectual property in your story and are giving the songwriter credit for their work. When you properly cite the song, you even help the readers learn where they can listen to the songwriter or artist performing the song. A win-win!
There are several different ways you can cite the song lyrics that you use in your story. Here are the three most common citation styles:
In most cases, authors use either Chicago style or MLA to cite songwriters and other sources in their books. These methods are easier for you, as the author, to write than the APA style, and easier for your readers to understand. If you’re not sure how to properly and legally cite a song, just ask a publishing industry expert, like a professional editor. They can help you determine the best citation style and even write the citation for you!
In addition to your citation, you can also consider thanking the artist, production company, or whoever granted you permission on your book’s acknowledgments page. This shows your gratitude to them for helping enrich your manuscript, and it’s another way to show your readers that you’re giving credit where credit is due. Citing the song’s creator is always the best practice, even when a song has no copyright.
When a song has no copyright, you might not be legally forced to give the artist or songwriter credit. However, you must do your due diligence in researching all aspects and recordings of a song to make sure that no version of it is copyrighted.
Also, keep in mind that it’s always best practice to cite your sources. Acknowledge that you’re borrowing another artist’s words to enhance your story. It will show your readers that you’re a professional writer with strong integrity. So do the right thing and quote song lyrics the right way!
Quoting song lyrics might seem like a pretty easy way to boost your story. However, using lyrics the wrong way can get you into legal trouble that can damage your reputation as an author. So you have to make sure you’re protected! Most authors aren’t copyright lawyers, so the path to legally quoting song lyrics in your masterpiece can be winding and confusing.