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How to Get Permission to Use Song Lyrics in Your Book

How to get permission to use song lyrics in your book

A guest post by Virginia Lloyd. Virginia is an Australian literary agent, editor and freelance writer. Sydney-born, she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Two of my clients have been surprised recently to learn that they are responsible for obtaining permission to reproduce song lyrics in their respective novels. I’m sorry to break it to you, authors, but if you want to reproduce anything by another artist in your book – a painting, a few lines from a poem, song lyrics, a photograph – you have to identify who owns the copyright and contact that person (often a company or a literary estate) for permission to do so.

I won’t sugarcoat it: the process is a total drag, so the sooner you get on to it, the better. There are also some common problems that arise during the permission-seeking process that I’ll get to in a minute. But first …

Why is it the author’s responsibility?
When you sign a publishing agreement, you warrant to the publisher several things, among them (and often the first thing listed) that the Work is original, written by you, and that it does not infringe any existing copyright. Clearly, the lyrics from a song you did not write yourself must be someone else’s copyright, so you need to obtain permission to reproduce those lyrics in the Work.

When reading one client’s manuscript, I saw that the author not only reproduced the lyrics from one particular song, but repeated one or two lines through the novel as a motif. In this case it’s essential to obtain permission immediately in case the copyright holder refuses the request, or (worse?) says Yes, but here’s our fee for doing so.

With my other client, I must confess that I was surprised and disappointed that her publisher insisted on her obtaining copyright permissions. I felt her references to lyrics were so slight – less than eight words in each instance – that her use would have fallen within the doctrine of fair use. But publishers are behaving like teenagers these days, worrying about every tiny little thing in order not to attract the wrong kind of attention. Such as being sued by a copyright holder who’s had a tough time of it in the economic downturn and is looking for some free money.

Publishing contract clauses about copyright material
In the contract you sign with your publisher, there are usually a few clauses about the delivery of the Work. One of them deals with material appearing in the Work for which you, the author, do not own copyright. Examples of relevant wording from recent Australian publishing contracts I’ve seen:

For any part of the Work for which the copyright is not its own the Author shall, at his own expense, obtain written permission for the use of that part within the Work from the owners of the respective copyrights, and supply that permission to the publishers …

The Author shall, at the Author’s own expense, obtain all necessary permissions for inclusion in the Work of any copyright material appearing in the Work and for the reproduction of such material for all editions of the Work throughout the Territory…

Boring! So how do I go about obtaining copyright permission?
In a word, Google. Look hard enough and you’ll find scraps of information relating to copyright, usually where you see the (c) sign. If you’re quoting from a book, the imprint page towards the front should have the relevant contact details. For song lyrics, all music publishers and songwriters must belong to one of, and Here’s a detailed blogpost about searching those websites.

Here’s what you do. You write a letter or an email to the publisher/copyright holder that explains:

  • you are the author of a work named TITLE to be published WHEN by PUBLISHER/S (full name/s and address/es of publisher/s) in TERRITORY (eg Australia and New Zealand, or North America including Canada, or all Commonwealth territories excluding Australia) and stating the PRINT RUN if possible (a low print run will encourage many copyright holders not to charge you a fee*)
  • you are seeking permission to reproduce the following lyrics from SONG by SONGWRITER
  • you quote the exact usage of the lyrics, giving enough context for the copyright holder to determine whether or not it’s a reasonable and “safe” request for them to approve.

* You should be prepared for the copyright holder to ask you to pay a fee.

 Best-case scenario: The copyright holder will grant your request without any charge, and provide the wording for which you acknowledge permission in the acknowledgments or on the imprint page.

Worst-case scenario: The copyright holder will refuse your request or charge such an outrageously high fee that you’ll have to ditch the lyrics or poetry or whatever it was that you wanted to use in the first place.

What if I don’t hear back?
Your initial email or letter is likely to get bounced around from person to person within the copyright-holding organisation. Sometimes you will receive an email asking you to forward your request to another person or organisation. This can go on for some time and sometimes for so long that it will test your enthusiasm for using the lyrics/photograph/verse that is the subject of your request.

It’s possible (and not uncommon) that you will not hear back from the copyright holder at all. As long as you have evidence that you legitimately sought their permission, you can go ahead with your original plan to include the copyright material, making sure that on the imprint page of your book it states words to the effect that “all reasonable efforts have been made to contact the copyright holders” and that anyone who believes their copyright to be infringed is welcome to contact the publisher. Your publisher is likely to have precedent wording.

Have I forgotten anything?
I hope this post is helpful to you. If you have other questions about copyright or anything you’re struggling with in your own work (fiction or nonfiction), I would love to hear from you, so please leave me a comment below.

First published as ‘Using lyrics or an epigraph in your book? Curious about copyright?’ at Reproduced with permission.
Follow Virginia Lloyd on Twitter or check out her 2008 memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement.
Photo by c0tu via Creative Commons


  1. Eugene Cowan II
    2 August 2017 / 2:00 pm

    Question I am just want to use one line of the song for a descriptive narrative of the book I’m writing

    • Fantastic info. You outlined exactly what I’m up against. In contact with the management team of a singer songwriter and the writing is certainly a positive look at the work that he has done. It’s been over a week and I haven’t received acknowledgement that they’ve indeed gotten the manuscript. Yet I’ve followed their instructions for the process and I’ve even gone to the length of providing an index for them so they don’t have to read the whole book, Just refer to chapters and page numbers.

    • Dawn Candiloro
      23 August 2019 / 7:55 am

      I want to use titles of songs for chapter titles, and use some lyrics in the sy fy books I have written. I have the first one out on Amazon (It has no lyrics in it) But this is self publishing. Do I still need to get permission? And how do I do this?

  2. Daisy Duke
    10 August 2017 / 10:00 am

    Grace – I have gotten licensed permission to use several songs in a few different books I’ve written. The amount that I was charged wasn’t much at all. It’s worth it to know you’re protected and not liable for anything

  3. 25 August 2017 / 4:28 am

    I contacted Alfred about using lyrics from a song. It turns out that the company who owned the rights let the contract expire, so at this point no one knows who has the rights to the song. Do you think this would count under “all reasonable efforts to contact the copyright holder”?

  4. Brenda
    25 August 2017 / 4:38 am

    I would save any written correspondence that states it expired, and take screen shots of any attempts to locate the holder of the copyright – I have a folder full of “Request not found” etc. for different songs I couldn’t find the copyright for – to show due diligence if anyone ever comes after you for using it.

    2 May 2018 / 12:40 am

    It says to write the letter to the publisher or copyright holder. In the unique case where it is easier to directly contact the original artist, say they are a friend, will a letter stating permission for usage be sufficient, or must one still go through the publisher?

  6. Trish Titus
    8 October 2019 / 12:57 pm

    This is really important information. I had to do this with my first book. And I will do everything I can to get permission to use lyrics that are almost a god-send for the ending of my third book. Thank you.

  7. 20 February 2020 / 7:21 am

    I want to use lyrics from a well-known song by a famous band in my novel in progress. I google the song to fin the write and publisher, and it is none of the three companies mentioned in the article that “all” songwriter’s “must” belong to. I found my song at Global Music Rights. I only contacted them yesterday, through their “contact us” form on their website, s of course it’ too soon to expect an answer, if at all, but I’m really curious to see what they might charge.

  8. 23 March 2020 / 7:55 pm

    I wrote a children’s book and want to use the lyric’s from Let’s Go Fly a Kite. I have gotten zero reply on my request, Not sure if I am reaching out correctly nor if it is to right people. Help?

  9. Gregg Austin
    23 January 2021 / 8:54 am

    I wrote a book based on a popular song and quoted the lyrics through out the book. I’ve reached out to the writer and his management team and have not gotten a response. This was a big help

  10. 13 August 2021 / 5:19 pm

    I’m writing my book and at certain points I am referring the reader to songs to listen to where I quote the title of the song and the artist. I guess this is okay. However at the satart of the book I want to include part of the lyrics to a song that helped me to get through the sudden death of my partner. So I am now mindful that I should seek permission to use, it is not the full song lyrics just a part of the song.
    Your article has given the answers to my question. Now the search begins, fingers crossed.

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