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Saturday, February 26, 2022

Avoid Litigation: Mentioning Songs, Quoting Lyrics, Quoting People

By Bobbie Christmas 
Q: If I mention a song in my book, could I get in trouble? Here’s a sample sentence: Evanescence’s “Good Enough” was playing on the radio. I have quoted nothing from the lyrics. If I just mention that Evanescence is the character’s favorite band, do I need to do any legal things? 
A: I am not an attorney, but I do know that titles cannot be copyrighted, so you can certainly quote a title. Using even a few words from the lyrics of a song not in the public domain, however, can open you up for trouble if you haven’t received permission. 
Q: Please be so kind as to define the rules and regulations for quoting song titles and lyrics in published works. I have always assumed that quotation marks covered the legalities, but I was just informed that if you quote lyrics in a published work, you need a mechanical license to do so. Have you encountered this situation before?
A: I haven’t encountered it personally, but a close friend of mine did. Granted, it was before we had the internet, so her task took many weeks of research to find the owner of the copyright and learn how to contact that person. Once she had that information and leaned how to contact him, she wrote and requested permission to use his lyrics. He didn’t respond for several agonizing months. After all the delays, in the end she paid a fee based on the number of books that the publisher was printing and was pleased to have a signed contract with a well-known performer. 
Before I explain further, let me clarify some terminology. A mechanical license is necessary if you are publishing a songbook of copyrighted lyrics or producing a record using copyrighted lyrics. If you are writing a novel, not a songbook, and want to quote a line or a few lines of a copyrighted song, you need a print license. To get a print license, you first have to find out who owns the copyright. Nowadays you can search the ASCAP and BMI websites to determine the owner of the lyrics, and then you have to contact the owner to get written permission to use the lyrics. You may also have to pay a fee for each book you plan to print. 
The process can take a long time, put you through a great deal of trouble, and cost you money. You can see why I advise writers to avoid using lyrics and instead simply refer to the title or titles of songs. You don’t have to get permission to refer to a song title.
Q: I plan is to write a book made up of information gathered by interviewing one hundred leaders. After collecting this information I am simply going to use their input and words and craft my book. I plan to write only the intro and conclusion. Are there any industry rules about this? 
A: I’m relatively sure that if the people you interview are aware that you are writing a book based on their information and you get them to sign an agreement that allows you to identify them and use their words in your book, you won’t run into any problems. The key is to have their signatures on record and be careful not to misquote them. People don’t remember exactly the words they used, so you can rearrange their words to make sentences clearer, shorter, more to the point, or whatever is necessary to make the interview sparkle. You can also delete information that doesn’t fit and rearrange the order of the information. If you revise their words, though you must be sure to communicate that person’s intent. You can’t change the meanings of their quotes. 
Here's an example of an acceptable change. Original quote: “I—um—I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure the house was white with black shutters.” Improved and acceptable quote: “As I remember the house, it was white with black shutters.” Unacceptable change: “I am certain the house was white with black shutters.” 
If you have concerns, you can tell each person you will send a copy of the interview for approval. I promise you, though, that doing so can lead to complications. Everyone will want to add, delete, edit, and change, and you’ll have a ton of changes to make, in your attempts to appease everyone. If you have the time and patience for that step, or if you have major concerns about “getting into trouble,” then getting approval of each interview once you have written it is the one step that will keep you out of trouble. 
Bobbie Christmas is a book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications. Send your questions to or Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bobbie! Thanks for this important information. I have a question about plays. I'm working on a novel right now where one of the characters is an actress, and I'm planning on mentioning the names of plays and possibly a line or two from a few of them. Would I need to get permission for any lines from a play similar to what you shared about song lyrics?


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