Fair Use and Song Lyrics: How Much Can I Use?

If I’ve written a short story or novel that has a plot point hinging on a character’s reaction to a pop song that’s playing, how much of the (real) song can be quoted before it oversteps the boundaries of “fair use” and requires permissions and royalties and all that stuff?

Your publisher will let you know.

I think you can always have the character hum a few bars. (In a book, I mean.)

I’ve read plenty of books which use a single line from a song but acknowledge the songwriters/publishers in the credits.

For maximum safety don’t quote real songs, make something up. In practical terms, if the story requires it, tell the story the way you want to and, as suggested by Hilarity, if it is published let you publisher’s legal department work it out.


Copyright statutes generally don’t specify an absolute number of lines, pages, etc. of material that you can use under the fair use/fair dealing provisions. Rather, you can use as much as you need (but only as much as you need) for the exempted purposes. If the copyright owner thinks you’ve used too much, or that your use of the work isn’t exempt at all, then they’ll try to prevent you from publishing, by going to the courts if necessary.

Best thing to do would be for you to get in touch with your publisher, whose legal team can better assess the risk involved with your proposed quotes and then advise you on your options. If you’re self-publishing, well, you could go to the expense of getting a lawyer’s opinion (which of course wouldn’t be binding—the copyright holders will have their own lawyers with their own opinions), or you could write to the copyright holders to ask for permission to quote their work, or you could just go ahead and risk publication (on the assumption that the copyright holders won’t know or care, or that if they do care it will be easier to ask forgiveness than permission), or you could change your story to avoid having to quote any proprietary material in the first place.

In general, fair use does not apply to song lyrics. That’s because lyrics are licensed via ASCAP or BMI or the equivalent. Any quoting of lyrics without a license is a potential violation. (Remember all the lawsuits over sampling just a note or two from another song).

Your publisher would probably deal with issue, and many musicians would be fine with you quoting them (with a credit). If you can contact the songwriter, that’s a good way to go; they’re more likely to be willing to waive any royalties.

Generally, it’s more trouble than it’s worth to quote song lyrics.

This is nonsense. Licensing of copyrighted works (which by the way is not limited to lyrics) has nothing to do with fair use rights. If I want to publish a critical analysis of Green Day’s latest single I don’t need permission from them or their licensors to quote some (or even all) of their lyrics.

Licensing comes into play only when you want to use a work for reasons other than those exempted by fair use provisions. For example, if I want to play or to cover Green Day’s latest single as entertainment at a public event, then that wouldn’t be covered by fair use, and in that case I would need to purchase a licence through ASCAP (or whatever association or company handles the rights).

In general, no matter what fair play has to say about it (and that’s remarkably little in case law on quoting song lyrics) if you deal with a real publisher and a real publisher’s lawyers, they will bar you from quoting any lyrics without permission. Sputter all you want, but that’s the way the industry works.

If the OP is putting up a self-published story that no one will see, no one will care anymore than people putting up YouTube videos with lyrics have to worry (except for a few special cases). That’s also the way the world works.

Another option is available. Ask for permission. If you write to the publishing company and ask permission to quote a line in a story, they will most likely give it to you and for free. I’ve done it. That’s the way those permission statements in the front of books are acquired. If the song is by The Beatles or Prince, this may not work. But ordinary songs from ordinary groups don’t have insurmountable barriers.

Let’s assume that I’m absolutely hell-bent on including the lyrics (the real lyrics of a real song) unless it’s an absolute dealbreaker as far as getting the piece published. I’d like more clarity on whether…

• I have an absolute right to quote the 32 contiguous words and a second two-word phrase in my work as “fair use”, and publishers will know that, so I’m good to go; or

• I will be good to go if I include a copyright-acknowledgment in the front of the book and some useful link will tell me exactly how to word it; or

• It’s less clear-cut than that; I’m probably OK under “fair use” but I should contact the copyright holders because then I can reassure publishers & agents; or

• It’s less clear-cut than that; I’m probably OK under “fair use” but the publisher, once there is one, will contact the copyright holder; and that may or may not be something the publisher wants to deal with and hence may or may not be a barrier to this thing getting published; or

• It’s a shitload less clear-cut than that; no one knows what “fair use” means, really, and the copyright holder sometimes initiates a lawsuit and has to be paid off with boucoup royalties, and you’re setting yourself up for a long protracted fight, and good fucking luck finding a publisher who won’t tell you to strike that stuff out; or

• Something else
ETA: thanks Exapno Mapcase! That kind of answers the questions.

It’s not clear cut at all. Copyright holders have been waging a war against fair use since computers were invented. You can either get explicit permission from the copyright holder ahead of time or wait for someone to sue you (they may not, depending on how popular your book gets) and figure it out in court. Even if you’re absolutely, legally in the right, it will cost you a lot to prove it.

I’m totally cool with seeking out the permission from the copyright holder.

I’m up for chasing that down on my own but if anyone has experience with doing this and can give me a step-by-step or some tips that simplify the process or improve my odds of cheap or free OK, by all means provide them :slight_smile:

ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI do NOT license the use or publishing of lyrics. They have absolutely nothing to do with that.

These are what are called “Performance Rights Organizations” or PROs. PROs license the PERFORMANCES of songs. If you own a concert hall or a radio station, you need to contact the PROs to get licenses to perform copyrighted songs. If you want to publish the lyrics in your book, make a cover version of the song, put the the song or lyrics in a film or video, create a derivative work, etc, then the PROs cannot help you and any license you obtain from them will NOT give you permission to do so.

If you want to get permission to include the lyrics of a song in a book or other work, you need to contact the publisher of the song directly. (If you want to record an audio cover of the original song, you may obtain a license through the Harry Fox Agency or the song’s publisher.)

Out of curiosity, can you not get permission from the copyright holder directly? For example, if I wanted to quote “My Generation”, could I ask my old buddy Pete Townshend, or would I have to contact an executive at Decca Records instead?

Interestingly, that Wiki link quotes a few lines of the song, and even has a snippet of the recording. I doubt they bought a license for either one, so I’m assuming they’re claiming fair use. Which is probably a lot more defensible for a free encyclopedia than a fictional work intended to make a profit. But still, I’m interested in how they decide what’s fair use (I’m also intereseted in how the SDMB decides – I’ve seen entire news articles get modded down to a paragraph and a link – but who decides what the cutoff is?). Does it all come down to the confidence and experience of your lawyers?

Most songwriters sell their compositions to a publishing company under a deal that gives them a percentage of what the publishers collect.

The current publisher of My Generation is:

CAE/IPI #: 8112822
Phone: (212) 594-9795
Fax: (212) 594-9782
NEW YORK, NY 10018

I’m sure that Pete can contact Devon Music on your behalf and be more likely to get a positive response than you can. But he no longer owns the song and Devon Music is the only entity that can give you legal rights, unless there was a clause in the publishing contract that gave him permission to do things like that.

Pretty much this. Large publishers with deep pockets are like chum. By extension, lawyers are like sharks, although I’m sure you’ve never heard this analogy before. So anyone - publisher, author - with a bone to pick or smelling blood, I mean money, will launch a lawsuit. Even if the publisher is 100% in the right, it could cost tens of thousands to defend a lawsuit. Why bother with the possibility, unless you are Stephen King and the potential profit outweighs that?

I recall reading something about film distributors and incidental copyright. you want them to distribute your film, they ask you to take out insurance against copyright suits. They can’t simply say “you handle the copyright bills” because if you can’t, they still have to. So they do the next best thing - they get an insurance company with deep pockets to take on the risk. This was typically in regard to things like a documentary where during an interview a radio is playing in the background, or you pan across a billboard, or a TV… So now it becomes proving to the legal experts at the insurance company, you are good; and they still charge you a pretty good fee, regardless, due to the risk of stupid lawsuits.