Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (08 Using Song Lyrics in your Manuscript)


Using Song Lyrics in your Manuscript

You’ve just written the most perfect restaurant love scene imaginable. As your two main characters unite on the dance floor, the haunting strains of “Unchained Melody” play in the background. The lovers gaze deeply into each other’s eyes as the song’s lyrics pass through their ears, melding their souls together in acoustical rapture:

Oh, my…”

Wait! Stop! Halt!! Turn off the radio, unplug the phonograph, and disconnect your online radio station! Are you crazy? Are you looking for a lawsuit?

<Author looks around incredulously>

Who, me? Now what does this woman want me to do? Eliminate the perfect words from this scene?”

Yep, that’s exactly what I want you to do. You’re not alone, Mr. or Ms. Author, in wanting to use those or any other fabulous lyrics in your book. I know they fit the situation wonderfully, but trust me, there are good and valid reasons why you should cut those lyrics out of your book.

First, the music industry does not consider ANY use of lyrics to be under the “fair use” guidelines. You cannot quote lyrics from a song without the permission from the singer, songwriter, and/or recording studio. Getting permission can be expensive and difficult, especially if any of the parties have passed away and you have to deal with multiple estates and/or heirs.

According to this article (http://www.writing-world.com/dawn/lyrics.shtml), one author paid $1,500 to quote two lines from a Bob Marley song. Yikes! Many authors feel $500 is too much to pay for copyediting. To quote two lines from that one song, the author could have had their book copyedited three times.

Some authors have gotten around this problem of getting permission by writing song lyrics themselves. But that solution has issues, too. If you wrote your own lyrics and I didn’t, as a reader and at first glance, recognize the lyrics you were quoting, my brain would be instantly taken out of your story (always, always a bad thing) in trying to figure out what song the lyrics were from. I might even put down the book and go Google it. Aaack!

If you did get permission for lyrics and, as a reader, I did recognize them (such as in “I Shot the Sherriff,” the above-mentioned Bob Marley song), now I might be stuck with the song in my head, drowning out the story. Is your brain singing that song right now? Give it a minute… Ahh, there it is. This is another bad thing to interrupt your story.

A third result may be the reader doesn’t get the same emotional connection you intended. The song might hit the reader in a way that’s contrary to what you envisioned and can cause emotional confusion, again taking the reader out of the story.

I hope this explains good reasons for not using lyrics in your manuscript and why perhaps a better fleshing-out of the scene would be an improvement for you and your readers.

It’s still your decision, of course, but at least now you have fair warning. If you feel strongly enough about using them to pursue it, this blog post offers good information about getting permission to quote: http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2013/03/so-you-want-to-use-song-lyrics-in-your.html.

ADDED 29 March 2015:

This new blog post just came out and offers additional, excellent information on getting permission:


We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!


Susan Uttendorfsky

Owner, Adirondack Editing




31 thoughts on “Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (08 Using Song Lyrics in your Manuscript)

  1. Well, I’m a bit late to the party here, but somehow just ran across this posting from you Susan! 🙂

    One chapter in my TobakkoNacht dealt with the studies heading up the campaign to ban smoking in cars with children (under 5, under 15, under 18, under 21 depending on year and the state/country). I wanted to lead it off with the lyrics from the Woody Guthrie song, “Car Car” and soon discovered (perhaps through Susan?) that I could run into a problem with that. So I checked it out and, yep, they wanted something like $500 up front.

    Sooo…. I instead opted for one of the “This also creates a problem!” options that Susan outlines here and created my own lyrics with the attribution below it being to:

    – Unknown

    Here’s what I used:

    Can I drive daddy? Please?
    No son, you’re not old enough.
    Please Daddy? PLEEEEASE??
    OK. Here, sit in my lap.
    You steer. I’ll do the brake and gas.


    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Pukah Works and commented:
    While not something I’ve run into, I’ve seen some other discussions over this topic. Susan definitely provides some good points to not use any specific lyrics.

    Once again, great post, Susan. And, thanks again Chris for hosting this series (along with pointing me at it.) I look forward to “next” week’s installment.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Good golly Miss Molly I’ve never been known to be shy!!! But ‘tis a fact I didn’t shoot the deputy!!!

    To expand a wee bit on Susan’s excellent insight about using song lyrics, “Good Golly Miss Molly” is a song title—titles of books and songs are not entitled to copyright protection.

    As a side note, books are not “entitled”—they have titles. Books are entitled to be graced with glorious titles. “Entitled” is a legal term—“The judge ruled the plaintiff is ‘entitled’ to damages in the amount of…” I cringe when famous celebs are being interviewed and they say, “Why yes, my new book is ‘entitled’…” No, no, no, the book isn’t “entitled” to a damn thing!!! This is a good example of popular usage not really making the use of “entitled” acceptable. It’s almost as dumb as when I hear an author say, “I wrote a book of fiction that’s a novel which is a fictionalized account of things that really happen along with made up stuff.” Hello… Earth to novel author… by its very nature a novel is a work of fiction!!!

    When it comes to “Fair Use,” this is a big gray area. Most likely I can get away with claiming I didn’t shoot the deputy because it’s not in quotation marks and I’m not singing it to you—so to speak. There is a big difference between quoting a few lines from a book with due credit given and referring to even part of a line of lyrics. There are at least fifty shades of grey in the gray area that could result in claims of infringement with legal actions that you, the author, will have to defend against in court or arrive at an acceptable out of court settlement. This will cost the author bunches and bunches of folding green.

    Song lyrics in the public domain are fair game—verify the copyright has expired. “Oh say can you see… by the dawn’s early light…” the year of the copyright???

    When in doubt, leave it out, and like Susan suggested, use your creativity to do a write around. She is also correct about a song evoking one set of emotions with you, and an entirely different set of emotions with your readers. Drats, that sound was playing when “Run Around Sue” ran off with Johnny B. Good!!!

    I am not an attorney—but my son graduated from law school and is happily employed as a bartender working shorter hours and making more money. You could say he’s profiting from a different kind of a bar where he gets to mix things up. Thusly the above is in no way intended as legal advice.

    Enjoy often… John

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, drat! In my WIP, in an early chapter, I wanted a guitar player to lead with the first two lines from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird: “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me.” (Remember that song?)

    I guess I’m back to the editing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. If I ever write a romance scene like the one you mentioned, (I hope I never do, BUT, for the statement…) I would say something about the song playing, but not mention the title/words, just say what they were doing. 🙂 Great post! 😀


  6. Thank you so much for this post. It was very timely for me, because I had been intending to use a few lines from a popular sing in the novel I am about to publish. I have decided against it after reading this and am relieved I read this in time. Thank you!


  7. As some people may know if they have been following my publishing efforts from the beginning, I went through all kinds of contortions to get permission to quote copyrighted material as chapter epigraphs (and text, also) in my The Termite Queen, even though I possibly could have gotten away with most of that as fair use. I’m a believer in honesty in these matters.
    Now, in my WIP The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, I do use lyrics from the Irish drinking song The Wild Rover. However, I’ve checked this one out and the lyrics themselves appear in print as far as the early 19th century, or possible older, so they are surely in the public domain. Since the story takes place in the 28th century, there can be no reference to any particular musical rendition of the song. The song plays a poignant and important role in the story and surely is not a distraction. My beta reader, who is British and a songwriter to boot, thought it was absolutely perfect in context, so I’m sticking with that. .


    • TermiteWriter–As I say in my post (Thanks for the shout-out, Susan!) anything written before 1923 (now 1924) is out of copyright and perfectly safe. Traditional folk songs are fine, even if somebody has recorded them recently, unless you use specific lyrics added by the contemporary artist.


  8. In the second romance novel I’m writing, an adult Contemporary with a paranormal element running through parts of the storyline, with a working title of “His Darkest Secret,” I’m using the title of a song. The title comes into play as Jessica and Warren talk about their upcoming marriage, which shows another reason they were meant to be with each other. Warren and his wife used it as their wedding song; and Jessica had planned to use it as her wedding song with her now deceased fiancée William. The song I’m planning to use is: “You Light Up My Life.”


  9. I’m feeling suitably vindicated, reading this, having just decided not to call my third book “rebel without a clue” which is a line in a Tom Petty song and which, I thought, was a phrase in common use. I’d also read that you can quote up to 20 words of a song without paying or seeking permission. I thought I should check, just in case and it turns out the line came from a Bonny Tyler song and it’s not in common use at all. Consulted McOther, who’s an IP lawyer, and was told, whatever I did, not to. 😉

    I am now insanely relieved!





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