EDITING 101: 08 – Using Song Lyrics in your Manuscript…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

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, 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, read BOTH these blog posts first:

So You Want to Use Song Lyrics in Your MS

How to Use Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune, or a Lawyer

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Cutting “ly” Adverbs and Enhancing Scenes’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE


This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.





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71 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 08 – Using Song Lyrics in your Manuscript…

  1. What a useful post. What I would like to know, though, is, if it’s possible to use a line from a song as the title of a book. There’s a line in a Cream song that would just be perfect for a future novel I have in my head, but I don’t want to be sued if I use it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi V.M. Sorry I missed your comment! No, you can’t use a line from a song as a title. Any words in the song are lyrics. Yes, you might be sued! However, you can certainly ask for permission! You never know—they might say yes. You’ll have to do some research to find out who the songwriter was, as well as the producer, and then write to everybody. You may be asked to pay a fee, so don’t be surprised if that comes up. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Do not, under any circumstances, do not use sourced material without taking a course in using copyrighted material. And even then, in my opinion, call a copyright attorney and take the half hour for his/her free consultation to discuss inclusion in your manuscript. It is too easy to get burned. This includes images, song lyrics, a quote at the beginning of your book.

    When I was director of the Texas Circuit of Poets and Writers (now defunct) I was middleman in a suit involving the publisher who won an award we gave to publish a book of poetry by a poet who decided the publisher had stolen three lines from one of his poems in a review. The suit became so bitter and acrimonious that we ended up moving all of the books to a warehouse and eventually to a landfill. In my opinion (and our lawyer’s, and the publisher’s lawyer’s) the publisher was not at fault, but the poet, who acted as his own lawyer was able to tie us up with litigation demanding rights to the book—even though the book that won the award wasn’t the book involved in the copyright dispute—that we were forced to withdraw the award and the publisher withdraw it from publication.

    Ironically, of course, the poet’s own book never saw the light of day. So he shot himself in the head.

    This lesson, however, taught me the importance of the letter of the law on copyright and the need to make sure I never cross the line. I’ve probably given my copyright attorney a couple of thousand dollars over the last thirty years, but it’s money well spent.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great story to share, Phillip. I’ve had authors tell me “it doesn’t matter” (quoting someone else’s material in their book), but they don’t realize that it can have long-lasting, $$expensive$$ consequences! It only doesn’t matter if no one notices…and that’s not ethical anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I actually sought out and obtained a license to use some song lyrics in one of my books. It was a lesson I wanted to learn. Unfortunately, I could only get North American rights and had to publish two versions of the book. The education was worth it, but the added value was too small to do again.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks so much. I had a Spanish writer making an enquiry about a translation. She told me that it wouldn’t be a long job because she’d used a lot of song lyrics (in their original English). I had to ask her to make sure she got permission and she told me she’d checked with the legal advisers of a writers’ association who’d told her it would be fine. And I told her they were wrong and gave her quite a few references. Of course, she panicked. Well, no translation for me as she’d have to rewrite the whole book it seems but…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The book I started in 2006 and will possibly maybe perhaps finish sometime next year, stalled initially because it contains the lyrics (only 2 lines) of a well known song from a (allegedly) particularly litigious famous trio.
    The indecision of how to replace it with something else has held this undoubted best seller frozen in time ever since I found out I couldn’t use the aforementioned la, la, la’s.
    Good job I wrote something else instead! 😳

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s too bad, Misty. Did you contact the trio and ask for permission? It can be expensive and complicated, but I have also heard stories from people who asked for permission and were granted it without a quibble! So it doesn’t hurt to ask. I’m sorry the situation stalled your book for so long. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I was glad to discover this before my third book came out – which features a concert and later a test of identity to see who knew the words. It’s okay to use song titles, not lyrics. Unless they are out of copyright, which means you have to go back to composers you probably don’t have the same connection with… You’d be surprised what you can find in Purcell and Elgar, though!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know, right? 😉 This post, when published before as a part of “Dun Writin’, Now Whut?” was the most visited and commented on post. Songs seem to have a visceral affect on humans and writers want to recreate that in their writing. I don’t blame them!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on TINA FRISCO and commented:
    Susan Uttendorfsky is a guest on The Story Reading Ape with Part 8 of her EDITING 101 Series: Using Song Lyrics in your Manuscript. While many of us might think song lyrics would animate a romantic scene, Susan gives us several good reasons why not to use them…

    Liked by 2 people


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