“Dear Editor, can I use song lyrics in my novel?” is a question I hear often.

Song lyrics are covered by copyright, an asset with monetary value. Copyright is the right to copy, distribute, and display copyrighted works. Copyright covers original works, whether words, sounds, or images, and whether published or unpublished. These can be:

  • Books
  • Blog posts
  • Music
  • Song lyrics
  • Scripts for movies, TV shows, and plays
  • Speeches
  • Poems

Copyright is international and automatic. In the U.S., content creators can register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office (U.S. Copyright Office), but this is not compulsory and most countries don’t have registration programs.

You can use copyrighted material, including song lyrics, when:

  • The material is in the public domain (e.g. because the content creator died more than seventy years ago, or the publication was before 1923).
  • You have written permission from the copyright owner.
  • Your usage can be considered fair use.

You can open a book, look at the copyright page, and that tells you who owns the copyright to that book, and the copyright date. Steve Laube has some handy information on how to find if a work is covered by copyright in this article: When Does a Book Become Public Domain?

It’s not so easy with songs. The copyright owner usually isn’t the singer or the band, and sometimes it’s not even the songwriter. For example, Paul McCartney doesn’t own the rights to most of the 250+ songs he wrote with John Lennon. Check out this article: Who Owns the Beatles Catalog, and Why It Matters

If the song is covered by copyright, then you’ll need permission. However, this can take months, and is often expensive (thousands of dollars to use a single line).

There is an exception to asking permission: fair use. The laws around fair use (also known as fair dealing) vary by country, but in general fair use considers:

  • Is the proposed use commercial? Will you make money from it?
  • Will you change or transform the work in some way?
  • Is the purpose commentary or criticism?

For example:

  • A book meme quoting twenty words from an 80,000-word novel is likely to be considered fair use because it changes the work, and it’s not commercial.
  • A book review is fair use, because it’s considered commentary and criticism.
  • A blog post quoting twenty words from a 200-word song might be considered fair use, as it’s not commercial. But it might not. Instead, try embedding the YouTube video in the blog post, or hyperlinking to another website that includes the song lyrics.
  • A novel quoting twenty words from a 200-word song is unlikely to be considered fair use, because it’s commercial.

Unfortunately, there are no clear rules over what is and isn’t fair use. Getting it wrong could result in an expensive law suit. My view is it’s best to avoid using song lyrics in your novel unless they are in the public domain.

Please note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. To get legal advice, you should pay a lawyer licensed to practice in your state or country. 

Iola Goulton is a New Zealand book reviewer, freelance editor, and author, writing contemporary Christian romance with a Kiwi twist.

Iola holds a degree in marketing, has a background in human resource consulting, works as a freelance editor, and has developed the Kick-Start Your Author Platform Marketing Challenge, an email course for authors wanting to establish their online platform. Check out her website here.

When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading or writing her next book review. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand (not far from Hobbiton) with her husband, son, and cat.