Sometimes one of the best ways to set a scene in a narrative, is to use the lyrics of a famous song. Imagine what the next chapter of a book might look like if before it you’ve read the lyrics to one of these songs:

“Can’t buy me love…” The Beatles

“Fly me to the moon…” Frank Sinatra

“There’s a bad moon on the rise…” Creedence Clearwater Revival

As an author, you almost don’t need to write anything more: readers will automatically have an emotional reaction to these lyrics because of the song that goes with it.

There’s a BIG PROBLEM when authors do this (and they didn’t pay for the rights)… They’ve broken copyright laws!

Before I released my newest book, HELL’S REQUIEM I had prominently featured 13 songs from the main character’s playlist (also called Hell’s Requiem). I had used a few lines of carefully selected lyrics from each song to set up a chapter. Additionally, I chose a few strategic places where a character sang several lines of a song. I sent my completed manuscript to my audiobook narrator and after reading it he informed me, “I can’t do it!”

Only then did I really research what I could and couldn’t do as an author when it came to using song lyrics in a book. I should have figured this out before, but I’d assumed that this was not a problem because I had seen lyrics so often quoted in many books, and I was only quoting some of the lyrics of each song. Plus, I always figured the song’s owner would be happy with me because I was promoting the song by telling people to listen to the song on Spotify (on a playlist I’d set up ahead of time). Of course, my assumptions were all wrong.

Here were the two major copyright issues my book and especially audiobook were potentially violating:

  1. A narrator cannot sing a song, because even with paid permission (to list the lyrics in a book), any artist (this includes a narrator) cannot “perform” the song. So if I have a character singing a song, the narrator cannot even attempt to sing it in the character’s voice.
  2. Lyrics cannot be listed partially or in full without the paid permission of the copyright owner.

Wait you might say, what about the “fair use” doctrine? Doesn’t that allow me to quote from the lyrics without violating copyright?

Fair use means that it’s okay to use copyrighted material when it’s done for socially valuable purposes such as commentary, news reporting, education, or some other “transformative” use, such as in a parody, without the permission of the copyright holder.

It’s completely fine to list the title of the song along with the name of the artist in a book as these are not protected by copyright. But quoting some or all of the lyrics (other than in the above exceptions) requires permission from the lyrics owner. This is much more the case when the lyrics are used in a profit-making enterprise such as publishing a book for sale. Upon further investigation, I found that all but one of the songs were owned by Hal Leonard Corporation and they charged a minimum of $300 per song.  Plus, they’d limit how many books I could sell (without paying more). That’s a minimum $3600 fee just for 12 of the 13 songs I wanted to partially quote lyrics from, and probably much more if my book became a best-seller and sold more than say one thousand copies.

There was no way I would pay this. So, I needed to go back to the drawing board for my book.

In other words, I had to get creative.

Because my protagonist lived in a post-apocalyptic world, where his iPod probably wouldn’t play his playlist of songs, I was listing the lyrics from his playlist to set up several chapters. Instead, I now listed a song from his playlist, along with a few chosen “Keywords” for that song track. Notice what I did here? I was no longer listing lyrics, I used some of the key words from the lyrics. That is I was  using these chosen words in a “transformative” way.

For example, I wanted to use Blue Oyster Cult’s, Don’t Fear The Reaper before an important chapter, to set up that chapter. Below, I’ve listed what I did before I made changes to the novel, and what it looks like right now:

Before Changes How It Ended Up in the Book
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult)
All our times have come
Here, but now they’re gone
Seasons don’t fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
(We can be like they are)Come on baby
(Don’t fear the reaper)
Baby take my hand
(Don’t fear the reaper)
We’ll be able to fly
(Don’t fear the reaper)
Baby I’m your man

Hell’s Requiem Playlist, Track 2


Song/Artist: Don’t Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult

Keywords: all our times have come; seasons don’t fear the reaper; nor wind, sun, rain; take my hand; able to fly; baby I’m your man.


I’m no longer quoting direct portions of the stated lyrics. Instead, I’m listing strings of “keywords” for a piece of digital music in my protagonist’s playlist. I’ve chosen the key words which connect with the readers’ emotions that I want to target most in the upcoming scene.

As for those few areas where my characters are actually signing the words of a song, only one or two words are now listed from the song. But they are framed by the narrative which better describes what the characters are doing, and why. In other words, my characters are showing not telling.

Please note: the audiobook’s narrator can still only read the word or two from the song and not perform it. But with the added narrative, describing what is happening, the reader/listener can better “see” what’s going on, all without listing lines of lyrics.

With these changes, my book is much better now, and because I’m not listing song lyrics, I’ve protected myself and my narrator from future trouble.

In other words, who needs those pesky song lyrics in a book’s narrative, and the copyrighted ball and chain attached to them?

It would be nice to be able to more easily use lyrics in fiction, by paying a reasonable fee for its partial use (HINT-HINT). But until that day (don’t hold your breath), if you’re an author you’d better not use any lyrics in your book, or you’ll have to be very creative (to be considered “transformative” in its fair use). Otherwise you might find yourself on the receiving end of a Cease and Desist demand from a publisher’s lawyer, or much worse.

For more information on this subject, tackling this issue in much greater details than I have, here are some great articles:

Published by ML Banner

ML Banner is a USA Today bestselling author of Apocalyptic Thrillers

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1 Comment

  1. Kyle Pratt says:

    I’ve run into similar problems that have led me to write lyrics and even poetry, neither of which I feel qualified to do.

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