Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 14, 2013

Quoting a Poem or Song Lyric


The above illustration was sent in by Kendra Shedenhelm. It is from her new book The Owl and The Pussycat, published by Ustyme. You can visit Kendra at:

This past weekend the topic of quoting poems and music lyrics came up. No one was quite sure of what is allowed and what isn’t, so I started to research for the correct answer to share with you. I am not sure I accomplished the goal, but here are some good things to read.

Over at Writing World John Savage, Esq. wrote a blog post titled Understanding Fair Use.

Below is the bottom line from John, but I am sure you will want to read the full post – Lots of information!

Permissions are a pain in the behind–and the pocketbook. They can create significant ill will with a fiction publisher–they’re routine in nonfiction–and significant delays in publication. Thus, we want to avoid them, by ensuring that our quotations and adaptations fall within fair use.

These guidelines should help you stay within the bounds of fair use:

  1. Always fully attribute anything you are quoting or adapting. Attribution will normally limit later disputes to a matter of permissions rather than a copyright infringement suit. That means no attorney’s fees, a shorter process, and probably only a couple hundred dollars out of pocket.
  2. Limit direct quotations to two lines of poetry or 300 words of prose from any single source in any single piece of fiction.
  3. Be especially wary of quoting unpublished material. While the law says not to treat them differently (look at the last sentence of Section 107, quoted in question 4), judges usually resolve any doubts against fair use of unpublished works.
  4. Ensure that quotations and adaptations, however short, do not appropriate the essence of the source work so that someone who reads your work would be substantially less likely to buy the source work.

These guidelines are not intended as a blanket assertion that “You can do this and avoid all problems.” They’re conservative, but no set of guidelines on fair use could prevent all possible conflicts.

Keep in mind that fair use is very fact-specific. The recent amendments to the U.S. copyright law do not appear to have any effect on fair use. If you ever get involved in a dispute over fair use, consult a copyright lawyer. Don’t assume that the publisher’s legal department will help–you need counsel of your own.

Ann R. Allen has a blog where she discussed this topic on March 17, 2013 in her post titled, So You Want to Use Song Lyrics in Your Novel? 5 Steps to Getting Rights to Lyrics. Lot of good information here, too, but not necessarily in agreement with John. Scroll to the bottom to read Five Steps to Obtain Song Lyric Rights by Michael Murphy

Here’s Blake Morrison in the Guardian talking about the price of using song lyrics in his novel South of the River.

‘I’d restricted myself to just a line or two from a handful of songs and vaguely hoped that was OK or that no one would notice. My editor, reasonably enough, was more cautious, and at the last minute someone from the publishing house helpfully secured the permissions on my behalf. ‘I still have the invoices. For one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: £500. For one line of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”: £535. For one line of “When I’m Sixty-four”: £735. For two lines of “I Shot the Sheriff” (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael’s “Fastlove” came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75. A typical advance for a literary novel by a first-time author would barely meet the cost.’

Great discussion over at The Passive Voice with lots of people weighing in on this topic.

Any copyright lawyers out there who could give us a more definitive answer? I guess for now, try to avoid using song lyrics or poems.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Do you know how this applies to works in the public domain, like Robert Frost or Shakespeare? I would assume you wouldn’t need to worry, but I might be assuming wrong…


  2. Great stuff, Kathy 🙂 This must’ve been discussed on Sunday or in a workshop I didn’t attend. So important! Anita looked into it, too, and posted this link also:


  3. Great Post, Kathy!

    My thoughts, for fellow writers:
    Don’t be afraid to quote lyrics in your ms. If that’s what helps you get your story out, include them! They can always be replaced later.

    When you get close to publishing your book, of course do all the footwork—find out if you can legally use the artist’s words, find out what the cost would be to use them, and get everything cleared if you like—but it will only be when you get close to publishing that you’ll know what kind of money you’re willing to pay for those words.

    Most importantly, remember this: You can always write a song of your own. You can even create your own band on the page! You know how fun it is to make up band names, right? No? Go ahead, give it a shot. Don’t know if you’re ideas will be as good as my little guy’s—Mississippi Lounge Torpedoes is hard to beat, though Rabbit Daggers is a close second—but you’ll laugh yourself silly trying.

    There’s also this—
    If you use real bands, and real songs, you take the chance of dating your book. It might be worth it, if the lyrics you want to use are universal and timeless, but it’s something to think about.

    Rock on, writers! And don’t forget that you can always simply ASK an artist for permission to use their lyrics. When they say yes, save their email response.

    What? You don’t know any songwriters? Ahem. Sure you do. You know at least one songwriter who’d LOVE to see her lyrics in your novel.



    • Mimi, your response was SO much fun to read 🙂 You made excellent points, of course, and honestly, I can’t imagine why an artist would mind having their lyrics quoted anywhere unless it was someone saying “this song is AWFUL, and esPEcially its lyrics!” lol Anything else is like an ad, I would think. I know Leila Sales mentions a LOT of songs (of which I knew maybe only two or three lol) in her new book THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE.

      Personally, I do fear dating my work in that way, though I’m sure it would be preferred if I were writing anything historical, to add to its authenticity.

      Thanks for this!
      (Btw, it was so nice seeing you Sat., even if briefly 🙂 )


  4. Thanks!
    Got permission last week to use lyrics written by my favorite artist at the start of one of my novels. The lyrics were a huge inspiration to me.
    Feel very lucky, and grateful.
    All I did was ask.
    Sometimes it’s just that easy.


    • Yay for you, Mimi! 😀 The artist is probably so flattered by it, and it only makes sense, right? After all, it will call attention the artist’s work 😀


  5. Informative post. Thank you. Can you tell me if the same if the same guidelines or rules apply when blogging?


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