Copyright & Song Lyric Use For Writers-1

Copyright & Song Lyric Use For Writers

In this post, we look at using copyrighted song lyrics in our writing.

Disney sued for daycare murals. Musicians were outraged at the unfair use of songs for the Trump campaign trail.

When writers use music, wrong use is lawsuit material.

Here’s how to use copyrighted song lyrics in your work.

What’s The Song (Or Lyric)? 

Misheard lyrics are common. Even if you’ve heard the song before, you can be wrong about it! Quotes should be right, and it takes research.

Use websites (like Lyrics.com, AZ Lyrics, SongLyrics.com) for what songs really say. Search for excerpts if you only recall a few lines.

Apps (like Shazam) search for songs by audio.

Checking Copyright

Copyright matters.

Always check the copyright data for songs you’d like to use. Look at a book’s copyright page for where other writers have used songs: the year, the artist, and the (music) publisher is what gets listed.

Rights can be with creators, but also bought, sold, and transferred.

Hint: ask record labels or artists.

Direct copyright search engines, like RightsHolder and MPA.org, help too. Depending on what happens, you may be able to use the song’s lyrics if you pay for them.

6 Tips For Copyrighted Music Use 

1. What A ‘Reference’ Is

It’s a reference if it can be identified by an audience (or a judge).
Writers can quote a song’s title, or part of it. Song lyrics can also be quoted, as lines in a text. Lyrics can also appear as narration – or visually, as graffiti.
Characters can sing or say songs, or hum a copyrighted tune.

Parodies, jokes that are not libel, have different rules. This post does not cover parody law. 

2. What is Copyright?

Copyright exists from creation, but it’s easier to prove once registered or recorded. For disputes, a creator has to prove which use was first. 

International and domestic copyright laws protect creators, and keep track. 

A copyright holder’s permission is important. Get it in written format, like a letter or email.

3. What Is Public Domain?

Public domain works are ‘in the public domain’ for ‘fair use copyright’.

These can be referenced with attribution, but without permission. Much older, copyright expired lyrics fall into this category.

The definition varies by country. Almost each region has a different rule for what the time period is. For the United States and UK, it’s about 70 years after the copyright holder’s death.

When there is no estate (or trust) in control of rights anymore, it becomes public domain.

Creative Commons (CC) licenses are something else, and refers to works registered (within limits) for modern fair use. Several exist, and there’s more about CC licenses here.

4. How Much Can I Use?

 You’ll need the same permission for one line, as to quote four. All amounts of use needs the same amount of permission. 

Stephen King (and others) often use songs: attribution is on the copyright page (or introduction). Permission requests are done by the publisher. That’s for ‘Stephen King (and other writers)’. 

Unless you have a good, standing relationship, do this job yourself. If you are self-published, especially do it yourself. You may have to pay the creator if you want to use the song’s lyrics.

5. How To Ask

If you want to use a song or lyric at all, here are three tips: 

  • Make sure you ask,
  • Make sure it’s a yes,
  • Make sure you can prove it.

Permission is the most important thing. Someone can agree or refuse, but that’s the worst it can go if you ask. If you don’t ask, face letters and lawsuits that will tap you dry. 

When you submit, always submit the permission proof – and make sure you can show it when asked.

Play it safe. 

6. Permission: From Whom?


Ask permission, but from whom? 

Start with recent copyright info. 

Rights can lie with the record company, but might also lie with the writer(s). Either could also have sold the rights to an investor or LLC, in which case you will need their permission instead.

Rights can be owned by a person, by a corporation, or by a trust. 

Music rights can change hands: copyright is a whole business on its own.

Songs can also have lyrics registered separately from the music. It can be complicated, though will always be stated on the registration info.

The Last Word

In this post, Writers Write looked at using lyrics in writing.

By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.

If you enjoyed this, read other posts by Alex:

  1. Urban Legends For Writers
  2. 8 Common Phrases We Actually Got From Shakespeare
  3. Here Be Dragons – In Fiction
  4. Bad Business: 9 Words & Phrases To Avoid
  5. Dissecting Zombies in Fiction Writing
  6. Dirty Journalism: How Journalists Can Keep Research Legal
  7. How Writers Can Research Settings Remotely
  8. The Use Of Real People As Characters In Fiction
  9. 8 Proofreading Tricks (That Save Valuable Time)
  10. 7 Techniques Of The Faustian Story

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

Posted on: 8th December 2022
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