How To Legally Quote Song Lyrics in Your Stories, Books and Articles

If you’re quoting song lyrics to add flavor and atmosphere or to progress the plot, you may want to read further.

John Iovine
The Startup
Published in
5 min readApr 5, 2020

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Photo by Michael Maasen on Unsplash

I wrote a short story that used a few song lyrics from Pink Flyod’s “Wish You Were Here”. Fortunately, before publishing, I stumbled across an eye opening article on copyright infringement specific to song lyrics.

Before I proceed further, let me first state “I am not a lawyer” and I am not offering legal advice. I am expressing the copyright laws as I interpret them.

In general, copyright protection for works created after January 1, 1978, are for the life of the author plus 70 years.

Song lyrics are copyrighted. As copyrighted material you will need to acquire permission to use them in your writing. While acquiring rights are simple in principle, the execution is problematic. We’ll go into this a little later, because if you’re thinking the way I did, you’re thinking you can skirt around the copyright issue by invoking fair use. Not so fast my fellow writer, let’s examine that first.

Fair Use

There are no specific laws regarding how much of someone’s material you can use under the fair use doctrine. For the music industry, the prevailing wisdom is that you need permission for as little as one lyric line.

Attributing the lyric and copyright to the artist, in your story, does not exonerate you from copyright infringement. Attribution is not a substitute for permission.

So answering the question, can you use a single lyric line if you attribute the line to the artists? The answer is no. You still need to acquire permission from the publisher for a single line.

Latitude For Fair Use

If you are a music critic or reviewing an artist's work, you may be given a little more latitude quoting lyrics in your review and opinion.

Songs In the Public Domain

Public domain works are not protected by copyright. In the United States songs published before 1924 are in the public domain and may be used. Of course, these older…

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John Iovine
The Startup

Science writer, thinker, self-experimenter, focusing on personal development and health — www.john-iovine.com