The perils of using song lyrics in your book (and how to do so anyway)

The lyrics to “Happy Birthday” became public domain after a federal court judge in Los Angeles ruled against Warner Chappell Music on September 22, 2015.

Many indie authors ask me if they can use song lyrics in their books, and if doing so constitutes fair use or if permission is required. The short answer is this: yes, you can use lyrics, doing so might or might not fall under fair use, but in the end that is irrelevant because copyright of most lyrics is aggressively defended by powerful licensing agencies who can make your life miserable if you fail to pay for permission. So forget fair use: you can’t afford it.

Permission to use song lyrics is complicated because:

    1. You may have to license from multiple agencies to achieve worldwide usage.
    2. The terms of the licences can leave you vulnerable.
    3. Licences are often very expensive.

To give you an example from my own experience, while working on The Point Between I approached Alfred Music to use four lines of “At Last.” The agency sent back a contract that provided me with a licence for 2000 copies for a fee of $50.00 plus one copy of the book. While that sounds like a reasonable and affordable fee, the fee for renewal was not specified in the contract, leaving me vulnerable to a fee spike if my book became successful. If I wanted to avoid this and buy more extensive rights up front, the fee would have been considerably more expensive and likely unfeasible. (In a Guardian article by writer Blake Morrison, he writes of having to pay ₤500.00 for one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones.)

Moreover, the agency does not control European or Australian rights, which meant I would have had to secure those rights from a second agency, Music Sales Corporation, in order to sell my book worldwide. This would have not only increased the cost to license but also the complexity of the situation.

And when one breaks down the licence fee, the numbers become far less attractive. The rate of $50.00 per 2000 copies amounts to a royalty of 2.5 cents per unit for eighteen words of a song. To put that in perspective, my novel is 74,833 words, for which I earn a royalty of $3.49 or less; that amounts to $0.0000466 cents per word per unit. The royalty for the song amounts to $0.0014 cents per word, and that was just for the one agency. Had Music Sales Corporation wanted the same amount for European and Australian rights, the royalty would have been $0.0028 cents per word in total, or 60 times — 60 times! — what I am paid per word for the rest of the novel.

If that is not enough of a deterrent, consider also that

using song lyrics can deter foreign publishers from buying the rights to translate and publish your book

because any such further use would require another licence to use for each book. It will be the same if you later decide to leave self-publishing and publish the same book traditionally: most publishers will ask that you rewrite the work to remove the lyrics, or will ask you to bear the cost of licensing.

If it will suffice for your story simply to name the song, do that instead: song titles are not copyrighted and neither is a reference to the artist. So instead of quoting four lines of “At Last,” I could have chosen to write “Etta James began singing ‘At Last’,” and that would not have required permission.

In the end I elected to abandon “At Last” and write my own lyrics for that passage in my book. Unless the words are absolutely essential to your story line, save yourself the grief and do not use someone else’s song lyrics.


If you still want to use copyrighted lyrics, this is what you need to do:

First you need to find out who controls the rights. To do that you need the song title and lyricist’s name, which may not be the same as the artist who recorded the song: although the Etta James version of “At Last” is by far the most recognizable, the song was actually first recorded in 1942 by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, was written by Gordon Mack (lyrics) and Harry Warren (music), and was published by Leo Feist in New York. Consequently, a good start is to Google the song title. Many famous songs have Wikipedia pages that list not only the author(s) of the work but its history. Another good source is the Library of Congress.

Many bloggers will recommend that you search the databases of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated), SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers), and SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada). The problem with starting there (as opposed to Wikipedia) is that many songs share the same title, and as noted earlier the performer and composer are not always the same person. If you look up “At Last” in the ASCAP database, it will return 216 entries. Unless you know the name of the actual lyricist, you have no way of knowing which of those 216 entries is the one you need.

Secondly, these agencies might only control the performance rights to the song, not necessarily the print rights to the lyrics. In the case of “At Last,” the Leo Feist catalogue is now administered by Alfred Music Publishing Company, which I discovered simply by Googling “Leo Feist licensing”; it was through Alfred Music that I then found out the territories of Europe and Australia for “At Last” are administered by Music Sales Corporation. Yet if you look up “At Last” in the ASCAP database, the administrator listed is WB Music Incorporation (Warner Bros. Music). Warner Bros. only administer performance rights of “At Last” and do not provide print rights to the lyrics. Thus I find it far, far faster to Google the song title, find the name of the original publisher, then search that.

In fact, Alfred Music Publishing Company is one of the largest music licensing agencies and is the exclusive agency for print rights of ASCAP-controlled songs. Another major agency is the Hal Leonard Corporation. It may be faster to start here after your Google search. Both have searchable databases.

Once you find the right agency to contact, most have an online form you must fill out to request a licence. Some agencies will also ask that you register with their website first; there will not be a charge to do so.

Once there, you will need to provide:

  • the song title and composer
  • the territories you want to publish in
  • the licence type (“print”)
  • the author of the book
  • the publisher of the book
  • the expected date of publication
  • the publication format (hardcover, softcover, ebook)
  • the price of the book
  • the print run if applicable
  • a short synopsis of your book (use your book description)
  • the language of publication
  • additional information such as whether the book is print on demand

If the agency does not have an online form, or if you are requesting permission from an indie songwriter who is unrepresented, send an email query with the above information and keep all copies of it and any permissions granted.

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