This free legal information is made available courtesy of Counsel to Creativity.


Today I received questions from a client about her book.  Specifically, she asked:

  1.  Can I use these song lyrics?  I’m only reprinting 4 lines, which I’ve heard is “fair use.”
  2.  If I need permission or a license, where do I get that?

Song lyrics are protected under copyright law and can only be used if the use qualifies as Fair Use.

Fair Use is a 4-prong case-by-case analysis.  You can watch my Ask a Lawyer video on the quick and dirty Fair Use Rule of Thumb here

While reprinting only 4 lines of song lyrics may meet the Fair Use standard in some cases; it won’t in others.  Rules of thumb are just that and are not legal rules. 

Be clear first that the type of work qualifies for those that get the benefit of fair use under copyright law.  The work must be for newsreporting, criticism, scholarship or parody.  This client’s book was a memoir.  Memoirs typically don’t perform these functions and therefore, don’t qualify under the Fair Use standard.

There are a couple of other considerations:

  • If the song lyrics are used by author as an illustration with an explanation or commentary, then their use in the book might qualify as Fair Use.  We’d have to look at the other prongs of the Fair Use test.
  • If the song title is what is used, not a song lyric, that does not pose a legal problem, because titles cannot be protected by copyright law and cannot be protected by trademark law unless they otherwise function and qualify as a trademark.

I will tell you what I told my client:  The best thing to do is to send me (read, qualified copyright attorney) the passages and have me assess each and give a recommended course of action.   (Let’s talk in a consultation first.)

If you need permission or a license to use song lyrics, you get that by contacting the owner of the lyrics (which may be different than the owner of the recorded song or the musical score) and making a specific request.  Most are on record and provide the licensing contact information at either ASCAP, BMI or SESAC.




Public Domain Music –