music sheets with handwritten lyrics

Asked and Answered: Song Lyrics

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing, Resources

music sheets with handwritten lyrics

1) Quoting song lyrics will help sell the performer’s CDs, so why can’t I?
2) Will the publisher get the permission needed to quote song lyrics in my novel?
3) Should I credit the songwriter or the copyright holder when I quote song lyrics?

  1. Because copyright law doesn’t care why you copied someone else’s work or what the financial result was, you shouldn’t presume that your “doing someone a favor” outweighs their right to control how their originality is used by others. The right to copy is decided by the copyright holder and no one else. At the very most, you may be able to cite two lines of a song in your entire work, regardless of your work’s length.
  2. It is highly unlikely the publisher will get permission for your use of someone else’s copyrighted material, and very likely you’ll be told to remove it or no deal. Also, contracts these days specify that the author will bear the cost of any lawsuit stemming from copyright infringement; authors are expected to know the fine points of a fluid body of law, or to have consulted their own attorney.
  3. When citing someone else’s work you always credit its creator. To make use of someone else’s work you need the permission of the copyright holder. [Yes, there are exceptions, study the links below.] They are frequently not the same person. Recording artist Sting found himself in hot water for quoting song lyrics from one song in another. Thing is, they were his own lyrics, borrowed for a new song. But he no longer held the copyright. So if you want to quote lyrics from “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” you’d credit Sting as the writer, and then add “cited with permission of …..” whomever that is. Good luck finding out as copyrights can transfer in the course of corporate business.

Use of copyrighted material is covered in numerous Internet searchable resources. My focus isn’t on the can you but the should you. I wrote an extensive article about a writer’s focus when tempted to use song lyrics. It includes several useful sources on the topic of navigating copyright.

Here are a few more:

If you’ve looked at any of these sources for even a few minutes, let me ask – wouldn’t you rather be learning the native cuisine for your novel’s setting or the intricacies of your character’s career than learning about the fair use doctrine and public domain? Okay, you could multi-task and make a character a copyright lawyer!

Copyrighted material.