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.