Monday, 14 January 2013

Dee Do Do Do, Dee Dah Dah Dah ...

A student asked me last week about quoting a song lyric in a piece they were writing. Because they were only quoting one line, and were attributing it to the song and the composer, that was all right, wasn’t it?

No. The safest thing is not to quote a song lyric at all. Even if it’s only one line. To avoid breaching someone’s copyright, you should seek written permission from the copyright holder to use their words in your work. When permission is granted, you should then attribute that quote correctly to the copyright holder. (Authors often use the acknowledgments section of their book to formally thank those copyright holders who have given their permission for their work to be quoted in their text.) 

Whilst the law allows you to quote someone’s work without permission, it does so on the condition that you attribute those words to the person who owns the copyright, the amount you quote is deemed as reasonable, and you are quoting for review purposes. Of course, the law doesn’t actually stipulate how much is reasonable, which is where the lawyers come in!

So, if you’re not quoting for review purposes, then you must seek permission (and this student wasn’t reviewing the song). It is the copyright holder’s choice how much they charge for quoting their work. Some charge a fee, others are happy to waive a fee and simply ask for an acknowledgement. That’s up to them. However, many music copyright holders charge a fee - and rightly so - you are using their creation. (It's no different to writers charging a fee to magazines and book publishers for publishing their words.)

These fees can be substantial. In my book, The Positively Productive Writer, I wanted to quote the chorus from a song, but after making enquiries I realised the cost for this could be prohibitive. Instead, I found a different way of explaining the point I wanted to make. Thinking the cost might have been a touch unreasonable, I did a quick search on the Internet and discovered that, actually, the cost was similar to what other writers were being charged.

Blake Morrison wrote an excellent article about this in The Guardian about how he found out, to his cost, how expensive quoting lyrics could be. I recommend reading it. It could save you a fortune.

So, if you absolutely must quote a particular song lyric in your work, get permission and then get out your chequebook. Because if you don’t get permission, the legal consequences could mean that bailing out Greece would be cheaper.

Good luck.


  1. A worthwhile warning, and one that my Diploma tutor, Caron Freeborn, gave us too. She was most upset that her publishers wanted to remove quoted lyrics from two of her novels.Then she found out how much it would cost (and it was just a single line in one of them). I can't remember the amount, but I she said when she had picked herself up off the floor, she saw their point ;)P.S Simon please allow name + url commenting on your blog, because I always have to scrabble about for my Openid lol!

  2. Hi Alison,

    Yes, the figures can be shocking!

    PS - have checked commenting options and name+url isn't one that's available. Sorry!

  3. Thanks, Simon. I must remember this.

  4. Good point, Simon. My winning story (*blushes* - that's me, not the title!) for the World Audio short story competition originally had a couple of lines from a song in it, as my character sings a bit of karaoke in the story. I thought it would be OK but clearly not - they took the lines out before they recorded it and put the story on the website! And actually, it works just as well without the song lyrics in it. Lesson learned!

  5. Sound and sensible advice, thanks Simon. It would seem if in doubt then always leave it out...

  6. Very useful point. I found a beautiful poem by Ted Hughes in a visitors' book on a boat in the Sundarbans in the Bay of Begal, and quoted it at the end of a travel article I submitted to 'The Oldie'. I thought that since I attributed it to the poet it would be okay. They published the artilcle without the poem, saying they would be fleeced if they used it. I'm just wondering how far one has to take this. Is it okay to write a song title, as 'I tripped along, humming "Nightswimming"'?

    1. Yes, Paola, despite you attributing the Ted Hughes poem, if they text is still in copyright then you should seek permission from the copyright holder, which is why The Oldie probably removed it.

      There is no copyright in titles, though, so they're a little safer, although titles can be trademarked. This tends to happen when books are made into films. Having said that, if you use a famous title, you can be sued for 'passing off' - that is trying to encourage readers to buy your work by making them think they are buying the more famous piece of work.