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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Can I put Song Lyrics In My Book? Here's How...

I think it's a natural process for writers to listen to music as they write, or to want to use song lyrics in their books, similar to the way movies have a soundtrack. As I was writing Sadie's Mountain I listened to my Adele station, which I, of course, created myself on Pandora.

In almost every song, I heard lyrics that reminded me of my characters and what they were going through. I also did research about "old timey" songs that Dillon would play to Sadie on his dulcimer. Music became a way for Dillon to communicate with Sadie. When she wasn't ready to hear his feelings for her, he played them to her on his iPod or he'd sing to her. It was a great tool to use in romance, in my opinion.

But you don't want to get in trouble or be sued. There's two ways to handle this.

  1. Use the song title and the author's name and describe the song without using the lyrics.
  2. Use the lyrics and pay the licensing fees. This will mean searching for the copyright information and contacting the company that owns the copyright, paying their fee, etc.

For example, here's an excerpt from Sadie's mountain where I used the song, "Make You Feel My Love," by Adele--without using the song lyrics themselves, but just used the song in the plot of the story:

Excerpt from Sadie's Mountain:

We drive for a bit in silence. Once in a while I peek up at him. I want to paint his image in my mind so well that it never becomes a driver’s license photo in my mental file cabinet ever again. His straw colored hair glistening in the sun. His tan skin—the way it glows. The perfect arch of his thick eyebrows. The freckle on his right temple. I want to kiss that freckle. I shake my head again. What is going on with me? 

He reaches over and with his long finger turns on the stereo, taps the iPod screen a few times to make his choice. Suddenly there’s a soft piano that begins to enrapture me. Then a unique raspy, soulful woman’s voice fills the car. She sounds familiar but I can’t place her voice.

“Who is this?” I ask after a bit.

“Adele,” he replies.

“Oh, yeah! I like her, ’Rolling in the Deep,’ right?”

“The very same,” he says, as if he wants me to listen to the song instead of talk. It’s about holding someone. It says ‘Make You Feel My Love’, on his iPod plugged into the dashboard. I listen closely as she sings. I look up at him through my lashes. He stares at the road, his expression impassive—maybe hopeful.

I sink into the seat and listen to Dillon’s love song to me. I take in the aching sound of the violin as it cries to me, almost like a lone wolf howling in a low holler. He’ll do anything for me. I know that now. Even if it hurts him and I don’t want to hurt him. I want to give in—feel everything he has to offer. Let him make my dreams come true, as Adele says. But I can’t.

A stinging tear falls down my cheek before I even know I was going to cry. My lips twitch under the feelings so I hide behind my hair. He takes my hand carefully, silently.

He knows I understand him but he says nothing. I clutch his hand tightly as I let his song tell me all he wants to say. This isn’t breaking the friend rules, really, since he isn’t saying it’s for me. I just know it is, that’s all.

I think he knows music has always been the way to reach me. All the way back to when he let me put on that little musical on his front porch when I was six and he was nine. I wrote a script and everything. I made kids audition. No one really tried hard. I think they were just bored enough to let me have my way.

Naturally, there came a time for me to include lyrics to some of the songs. At first I didn't know anything about the laws for using song lyrics in a book. I just used the lyrics I felt were really important and decided I'd let my publisher deal with the rest.

But, um, yeah...I'm self-publishing. So that task came down to me, just like everything else. I was talking to another author, S.E. Duncan who wrote Ella Awakened, as she was being a beta reader for me. She kept saying, "You can use the title, but you can't use these song lyrics in your book." She really scared me so I started looking into the process when I decided to self-publish.

Here's how I got permission to use song lyrics and how I determined which songs were old enough that I didn't need permission. I am not an expert, but just thought I could share how I did it.

According to the US Copyright laws Title 17 lyrics written before 1923 are in the public domain.

But how do you find out when the song was released or when it was copyrighted? Well, if you search for the sheet music the copyright information will be published along with the notes and lyrics.

For example, if you go to www.musicnotes.com you can search for PDFs of many songs. Here's the song I used in my novel. It's called "You Are My Flower" and it's written by M.P. Carter of the Carter Family. I was able to scroll down and found the copyright information on the bottom of the page.

Then, once I knew that the song wasn't in the public domain, I looked up the company, Peer International Corporation, who owned the copyright. I searched through their catalog and found "You Are My Flower" and sent them an email and filled out their copyright form. It actually took several times for me to get in touch with a real person.
I'm not sure if he'd appreciate me sharing his name and email with everyone, but just be persistent and keep sending a request until someone gets in touch with you. He asked me to send him a synopsis of the book, and an excerpt where the lyrics would be used. I'd actually used the lyrics three times. So I attached a Word doc with all three excerpts. I included almost the whole chapters where I'd used the lyrics, and to be helpful I highlighted the lyrics so it would be easier for him to find them.
But, I made sure he knew that I was self-publishing and didn't have a huge budget to pay for licensing fees. If they were charging too much I was planning on writing my own song and fake lyrics instead.
Some time went by and I didn't hear from him, so I sent him another email. He asked for the attachment again. See--you have to prod! But the next day he asked for my address and sent me the terms and the contract to sign.

This is the copyright information that I need to add to my first page:

"You Are My Flower" by A.P. Carter
Used by permission of Peer International Corporation

My fee was $150 for 10,000 copies. Meaning that if I sell more than 10,000 copies I have to pay the fee again. But I felt that was reasonable. Especially considering that the song was so symbolic of my main character, Sadie. She's his flower, and all!!

  • His tattoos represent her and include a lily and a 'great laurel'.
  • Her rosebud deep in her belly that stirs when she's around him.
  • He taught her the song on his dulcimer--so romantic!
  • It's what brings them together again in more ways than one.
  • It's authentic to the setting.

For me, the authenticity alone was worth it.

I also have two other song lyrics in my book. Both are in the public domain. I found that out by checking for the song lyrics on that website I posted above.

I really hope this helps other self-published authors in deciding to use song lyrics, or not, in their books.


I created a song playlist for my readers on Spotify. I found out from the lady organizing my blog tour that readers and bloggers love to listen to the book's playlist.




  1. THANK YOU! I'm working on the second book in my series (and at the point of selling or publishing the first one). My character, Sullivan, will be working and start humming "Hallelujah" (the version that k.d.lang did for the Olympics). He's lost his wings, his position, and everything. The song is loss and love.

    I wanted to have that song as a theme throughout the rest of the series, I will have to look into the copyright thing. You have helped me out so much!

    1. You're welcome! Thank you so much for reading my post. I'm glad it was able to help you with the song for your book series. Once you figure out if it's not in the public domain then you can look into who owns it. Are you going to use the lyrics? If not, you don't have to pay them anything. I also got the rights to use a quote by Anne Landers. They didn't charge me. They just gave me a notice to post in my copyright page.