Can you quote song lyrics in books? (Without being sued?)

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blot post about song lyrics in books…

Have you ever noticed how rarely you’ll hear the familiar melody “Happy birthday to you…” sung or played in a movie or a TV show?

There’s a reason for that. Until 2015, the rights to the song were held by Warner/Chappel Music. As a result, when the song was used for commercial purposes — such as in films — Warner was able to charge big royalty fees. In fact, they took in an estimated $2 million in royalties for this song alone, each year.

A judge changed that circumstance, and put the song into the public domain, following a 2013 lawsuit.

But if you’re wanting to put song lyrics in books, be very wary. The only ones you can use, without payment, are songs in the public domain. According to a recent blog post by Anne R. Allen:

As of January 1st of 2022, you can use the lyrics of Second Hand Rose, Give my Regards to Broadway, Bye Bye Blackbird, Are you Lonesome Tonight? Someone to Watch Over Me, and hey, how about The Cows May Come and the Cows May Go, but the Bull Goes on Forever?”

Of course, you can always try to buy the rights to use a particular song but that’s likely to be expensive. I much prefer Anne’s creative suggestion of writing your own song lyrics. Here’s how she did it:

“When I wrote my novels about Boomers set in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, it seemed impossible to separate my Boomer characters from the music background of their lives. But I solved the problem by writing my own lyrics. I had a whole lot of fun writing a David Crosby-style folk-rock love song, Happy Endings are Only for Fairy Tales and a Donna Summer-type disco song, City Girls, and a druggy metal anthem, Bored as Hell.” 

She was pleased when the editor assumed she’d quoted from real lyrics and told her that she’d need to get permission.

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