Is it possible to legally use song lyrics in your novel?
Is it easy to do?
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I came across this problem recently as I prepared to finalize and send out a novel manuscript I’d been working on. I wanted to feature the lyrics from a specific Beatles’ song throughout the book, and maybe even incorporate them into the title. (It was pretty central to my protagonist’s name.) As it turns out, Beatles’ lyrics are among the most difficult — and most expensive — to use. As it also turns out, song lyrics are copyrighted, so you need permission to use any lyrics written after 1923. You also need to pay to use them.
Learning this was discouraging for me. It made me wish I’d done my research sooner so I’d been able to plan and write certain portions of my book differently. So if you’re planning to use song lyrics in your novel, ask yourself a couple of important questions first:
- Are the lyrics absolutely essential, or can I get away without them?
- If I choose to self-publish, do I have the extra money I’ll need to pay for permission?
- Can I just cite the song title and artist’s name instead?
- Can I substitute other lyrics that I don’t need permission to use?
If you have the perfect lyrics picked out and you absolutely have to use them, here’s what to do:
Find the music publisher.
Don’t contact the artists directly, as they’re generally not responsible for handling licensing. You can usually find the music publisher listed on the song’s sheet music. Once you have the right name, check the music publisher’s website for contact information.
If you can’t find the name of the music publisher, try contacting the top music publishers to find out if they handle the song (or songs) you need. Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Hal Leonard Corporation, and Alfred Music Publishing are good places to start. At the very worst, they won’t handle the song but they may be able to point you in the right direction.
Gather your own information.
Before you contact anyone, you’ll want to have all of your book’s information readily available. This includes your title, publisher, publication date, retail price, distribution, and any excerpts from the book containing lyrics. You’ll also need to know how many copies will be printed because that will affect the license fee. If you don’t know, then err on the side of caution and request more than enough. For example: If you ask for permission to print 20,000 copies, it’s better to sell only 15,000 than to sell 50,000 and owe more money (and potentially have your book pulled from print.)
Contact the publisher.
Once you have all of your information in one place and you know who to contact, send an email or letter requesting permission to use the specific lyrics you want to use. For a great example permission letter, read How to Use Lyrics without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer.
Good to Know…
Songs published before 1923 are in the public domain, which means you can legally use them without permission. Even some songs written after 1923 are in public domain if their copyrights weren’t renewed, but it’s always best to check.
If you’re self-publishing, here are a few more resources to help you take the safest, legal-est route so you can focus on writing and selling your books instead of fending off letters from lawyers and hefty fines (like this one):
- Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook: The Step-By-Step Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing by Helen Sedwick
- The Step-By-Step Guide to Self-Publishing for Profit! by C. Pinheiro, Nick Russell, and Cynthia Sherwood
- Business for Authors: How to Be an Author Entrepreneur by Joanna Penn
- Basic Rules for US Copyright
- Can I Use Song Lyrics in My Manuscript via The Writer’s Digest
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Once you’ve taken all the necessary steps to contact the publisher for permission, they’ll most likely quote you a price. Then it’s time to decide if you can afford it — or if you even want to. If it’s not worth it, find a way to get your message across without those lyrics and move on. If it is, they’ll send you a letter confirming permission to use the lyrics. It all depends on how much time and money you’re willing to sacrifice for that moment in your book.
If you’re denied permission, which is entirely possible, don’t be discouraged. There are plenty more lyrics out there to choose from. Besides, you’re a writer. You could always just write some of your own.
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Have you ever needed permission to use lyrics in a book or other project? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments below or connect with me on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest to keep in touch!