How to use song lyrics in fiction

Nicci Cloke
1 August 2017

We draw inspiration from everywhere, but what are the legalities of directly quoting others’ work in your writing? Author and former permissions manager at Faber Nicci Cloke explains how to get permission to use song lyrics and poetry in your book.

  • Intensive 12-month course with the aim of finishing your novel
  • Monthly focus on structure, characters, dialogue and more
  • Dedicated private forums and chatrooms to discuss your work with your peers
Work in Progress

Permissions is a really tricky business, and one I’m actually quite familiar with. I used to work in the permissions department at Faber, which meant granting people the rights to use work owned by the Plath, Hughes and Eliot estates, along with other Faber authors – it was absolutely fascinating to see the huge variety of projects people wanted to use their work in! Unfortunately for some, though, song lyrics are a bit of a different beast. I know so many authors – and it’s happened to me too – who’ve been warned off using them by their agents or editors because they can be prohibitively expensive to clear. It’s usually charged per line and yes, they definitely cost more depending on how famous they are. For the sort-of A-list type megastars, you’d be talking in the thousands. Having said that, it can’t hurt to get a quote if you’re only planning on using a line or two.

Firstly, you’d need to find out who owns the print rights to the song, which is usually the publishers. There are three main databases which list these, and you can find details on www.copyrightkids.org. Once you know who the rightsholder is, they’ll usually have a form for permissions requests on their website, or at least an email address for you to contact.

Permissions for fiction and poetry are generally much cheaper and easier than lyrics to clear.

Nicci Cloke

On a similar note, for anyone interested, permissions for fiction and poetry are generally much cheaper and easier than lyrics to clear. If you’re hoping to use an extract from a published work in yours, I’d recommend the WATCH file as a good place to find the correct rightsholder to contact.

It’s also worth saying that if you’re planning on going the traditional route and submitting your novel to agents or publishers, you don’t technically need to have the permissions already in place – so you don’t need to have paid for them until you know you have a publishing contract. In fact, most rightsholders will need to know details about that contract before they grant you permission, because the expected print run and the number of territories the book will be sold into generally affect the cost of the licence. But, obviously, if another writer’s material plays a significant part in the plot and you wouldn’t be able to remove it should you need to, it’s worth getting those wheels in motion as soon as you can.

Nicci Cloke

Nicci Cloke’s first novel, Someday Find Me, was published by Fourth Estate in 2012. Her second, Lay Me Down, was published by Cape in 2015. She is also the author of two thrillers for young adults – Follow Me Back was published by Hot Key Books in 2016 and was nominated for the Carnegie medal, and Close Your Eyes was released earlier this year. Her first thriller for adults, written under the pseudonym Phoebe Locke, will be published early next year. She is a full-time writer but has previously worked in publishing, as an elf and as a waitress in a cocktail bar.

Work in Progress

Begins: 29 January 2018