A primary question to consider when quoting song lyrics is the importance of the lyrics to your message. If they are important, do you need permission from their copyright owners to use them in your work?
It is often wise to clear copyright on even a line or two of song lyrics. “Why?” you might ask. Isn’t it a fair use? Well, one determiner in assessing the likelihood that such a use would be considered “fair use” in a court of law has to do with proportion. A song has few lines in comparison to most books; therefore, a line from a song can be considered an amount too large to come anywhere near deserving a “fair use” consideration.
Writers often feel compelled to sprinkle song lyrics throughout their manuscript. Lyrics may be owned by many entities wanting their share of the revenue from permission requesters: songwriters and their heirs and/or several publishing companies. License fees can, at times, be quite high.
So what can you do to avoid the necessity of clearing copyright? An important point to remember is that titles are not copyrightable. You might consider using the title of the song and in your own creative way—and without relying on any of its lyrics— use descriptive language that evokes a memory of the song for those readers familiar with it. It is a challenge, but isn’t that what pushes our boundaries as writers?
Some writers find they can successfully create for their work lyrics of their own that evoke a mood and/or reflect the culture of an era. Others find the lyrics they wish to use are so old that they are now in the public domain and thus do not require a clearance. Creative research can sometimes help in solving clearance issues.
After considering your need/desire for the lyrics and copyright compliance issues, if you still feel the need to include those lines precious to your creative endeavors, then by all means pursue the right to include them. Clearance fees may be beyond your publishing budget, but you won’t know until you try. At times, these fees can be quite reasonable. If the fee turns out to be more than you can afford or beyond what you feel is fair, the only thing you lose is time in making requests and receiving replies.
Want More About Copyright Law?
Order your copy of Copyright Clearance for Creatives for a basic overview of copyright law and essential guidelines on when, how, and where to get permission to use copyright content in your works.