How Much of a Song Can You Quote for Your Book?

In a recent discussion about copyright in my online writer’s group, the writers were speculating about how much of a song’s lyrics they could legally use in their books.

Many of the writers suggested using just a few lines but being sure to give credit, some quoted “fair use” rulings, others said . . . well, it doesn’t matter what they said. The question of how much of a song you can use is not an opinion, but a matter of law. (Even after the correct response was given, the writers continued to speculate, so I finally put an end to the speculation by deleting the discussion.)

Fair use laws allow using bits of copyrighted materials without having to obtain permission, though what constitutes “fair use” is murky and subject to interpretation by the courts. According to the US Copyright Office, there are four factor to determine what is fair use:

music1       The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes

2       The nature of the copyrighted work

3       The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole

4       The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

My quoting this report could be (and I hope it is) a valid and fair use of the material since I am using it for purposes of illustration in a scholarly article.

Which means you can use song lyrics, right? Wrong. Song lyrics are exempt from fair use because of the shortness of the work. Using a paragraph of War and Peace is miniscule compared to the entirety of the work so fair use applies. Using a few words of a song is like quoting dozens chapters from War and Peace — the portion is too great and therefore fair use does not apply. So what does this mean? If the song is not in the public domain (and no song written after 1923 is in the public domain), you cannot use any part of the song except the title unless you get permission.

It’s tempting to use song lyrics because lyrics are a shortcut to creating mood or to developing a character, but if you don’t want to go through the sometimes lengthy wait for a response to your request (and perhaps be subjected to hefty royalty payments) then you either use the title of the song or paraphrase the lyrics in some way. You can, of course, write your own song lyrics (you are a writer, right?), or if you must quote lyrics, you can use songs in the public domain. (Most songs before 1923 are in the public domain, but check first to make sure someone didn’t copyright the lyrics of a song you might want to use.)

So, short and succinct. How many words of a song published after 1923 can you legally quote in your written work without getting permission? None. Zero. Zilch.

End of discussion.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

13 Responses to “How Much of a Song Can You Quote for Your Book?”

  1. Bojenn Says:

    Thank you. i’ve been wondering about this and it’s been a dilemma, to use or not? Thanks, again…

  2. Bojenn Says:

    Reblogged this on Bojenn and commented:
    Because, I need to read this again later, i must save…

  3. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Sorry, that was my discussion, and it was from quite a while back. Thanks for giving the succinct and correct answer though Pat. I appreciate it.

  4. Patty Andersen Says:

    This is why Stephen King novels have so many pages of attributes, especially some of the early ones like Christine.

  5. lorilschafer Says:

    Thanks for banging the gavel down on that one. I actually wanted to use a snippet from a song in my memoir – just three words that were relevant to a line in a song I was listening to that made me cry – but the idea of relying on a vague concept like “fair use” as a legal stance seemed like a bad idea. Instead I only referred to the title of the song – that’s okay, right? :0

  6. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I have used the song titles quite often in my writing to evoke a mood for the reader but usually don’t have to go any further anyway. The song Ain’t We
    Got Fun? I have quoted pieces of but it dates back to 1921. So copyright wise I suppose that is safe. I have also mentioned bits of I Dream of Jeanie which is a song dating back to the late 19th Century. I have thought of using bits of Little Boxes but would refrain from doing so. The same can be said for Moon Shadow though the title alone is really enough. Copyright is tricky. What about companies such as Coca-Cola? Is it okay mentioning someone having a Coke or a Pepsi at a train station while waiting for a train? Surely this would have to be okay because this is part of normal life just about anywhere.

  7. Malcolm R. Campbell Says:

    The short answer is always “none.” (Unless it’s older than the copyright act or written in the early part of the 20th century.) Even one line is a high percentage of the song’s words. Thanks for reminding everyone since a fair number of people think they can quote one verse without risk.

  8. Herb Says:

    Thanks Pat for this info, because I had three song lyrics that I was going to use in my current novel. The Titles will work some what, but as you stated, “You can write your own song lyrics…you are a writer…” Guess what EDIT Time. 🙂 I also read some info close to the Copyright incident in a law book the other day and here you’re right on target. Thanks again Pat.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m glad you found the information useful. I’ve always hesitated to make myself out to be an authority on such matters since I’m not an attorney, but in this case, the law seems incontrovertible. Best of luck with your edits!

  9. Fair Use, Copyright, and Images | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] How Much of a Song Can You Quote for Your Book? […]

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