The short answer to your question is maybe. This is a maybe leaning toward yes if you don’t plan on making money from your writing, and it’s a maybe leaning toward no if you are. It’s also a maybe which is conditional on the song in question, the length of the quote, and who owns the rights to the song.

A longer, slightly off-topic answer to your question may be found here:

And more specifically here:

It is important to note that song lyrics are not technically covered under the laws of fair use because song lyrics, like poems, can be very short. Quoting just a few lines from a song may be proportional to quoting a few chapters from a novel. Since song titles cannot be protected by copyright law, you may use them in your writing (e.g. Clarissa danced to “Lonely Boy” by the Black Keys.), but that’s about as far as you can stretch the law before you start edging into a dangerous gray area.

The rule of thumb most people go with is that it’s okay to quote two lines or less of a standard three-verses-and-a-chorus length song as long is they are properly attributed to the artist. That is, of course, unless the people who own the rights to the song tell you differently. Oh, you didn’t contact the people who own the rights to the song before you published? I hope you packed your lawsuit shoes! 

If you want to protect yourself and respect the rights of the copyright holder (as you would want others to respect your copyrighted material), then you need to get permission to quote song lyrics. 

Thank you for your message!


EDIT: One of our contributors, Wolf, answered a similar question to this one. Here is his response:

rustysilverlining asked: Is it legal to use lines from songs in works of published fiction? Writing out a verse from an Aerosmith song, for example, as a character’s ringtone— assuming it’s clearly attributed to the band?

Even if you attribute a song to the band it is still considered copyright infringement. Getting the rights to even use one line can cost thousands of dollars. Most editors will edit it out, so be careful about writing scenes where the song is poignant. Song lyrics used in books (Stephen King is notorious for this; check out any of his books and you’ll see all the copyright information in the first or last pages) are always “used with permission.” Sometimes a band or singer will be cool and let you use their songs for free, but most people in the music industry—especially big-names like Aerosmith—are very uptight about things like this. The same goes with movies, plays and the like. I say avoid it as a general rule.

However! There are exceptions to copyright rules:

  • Check to see if the song is public domain. Most songs within the past thirty years won’t be, but you never know. Public domain simply means the rights have either expired, the creators have surrendered them or there never were any. Shakespeare is public domain. So are Beethoven and Mozart. Newer artists (like Aerosmith) won’t be. If they’re still around, chances are they’ll want to be paid. Check out the public domain list here.
  • You can reference the song. This loophole in the law was created for outlets such as newspapers and movie and music reviews. So, you can say, “His cellphone buzzed and she recognized ‘Cryin’ by Aerosmith,” as long as you don’t use any lyrics.

Hope this helps!


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