• Mary Adler
  • [SWP: BEHIND THE BOOK] What I Learned About Using Song Lyrics While Writing "In the Shadow of Lies"
[SWP: BEHIND THE BOOK] What I Learned About Using Song Lyrics While Writing "In the Shadow of Lies"
Written by
Mary Adler
April 2014
Written by
Mary Adler
April 2014

Sometimes, a song enters my mind and becomes the soundtrack for the scene I’m writing, particularly if the scene includes Oliver--the main character of my new book In the Shadow of Lies--who shares my love of music. Early in the book, he sits in the dark listening to Billie Holiday sing “Gloomy Sunday.” If the reader knows the song, she knows something significant about Oliver and may begin to wonder what has caused him to seek comfort in that song.

Music evokes a mood, creates the feeling of a certain time and place. I wanted to create that three-dimensional experience for the reader, so I quoted some lyrics, wove them into the narrative. But once the manuscript was revised and edited, and my brain cleared, I began to wonder whether copyright law permitted me to use them.

What I discovered was that although the titles of songs are not copyrighted, the lyrics are and they do not fall under the “fair use” doctrine that allows us to quote a certain amount of the writings of others in our own.

Now, sadly, although Oliver thinks of song titles, he no longer allows the words to run through his mind.

In some places, the title of the song was sufficient to evoke the mood I wanted to create, but in one place in particular, I needed to finesse the writing to avoid using the lyrics from “Skylark.”(By this time the book had been laid out, and I did not want to undo the layout with extensive revision.) In the words of William Faulkner, I had to “try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better.” The result isn’t quite what I wanted, but the longing in the song might resonate still with readers familiar with its wistful lyrics and haunting melody.

When I signed with She Writes Press, I promised that In the Shadow of Lies did not infringe on or violate any copyright. That affirmation shields publishers from potential disputes, but leaves authors vulnerable to being sued. Experience has taught me that even the winners in most lawsuits pay an emotional and financial cost that I am not willing to risk.

Of course, I could have asked the entity that holds the copyright for permission to use the lyrics, but the book was on schedule in the publication process and I did not want to delay it. Some writers have found it difficult to locate the holder of the copyright, and negotiations for permission may be complex. The fee paid may be limited to a certain number of copies of the book, and if the book is popular enough for a second printing, fees may need to be renegotiated.

I recommend a wonderful post on Anne R. Allen's blog. (Thanks, Anne.) It is clear, informative, and relates the experiences of some authors who have pursued permission to use lyrics in their novels and of others who have avoided having to do so: http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2013/03/so-you-want-to-use-song-lyrics-in-your.html.

Have you used lyrics in your writing? What was your experience?

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  • Mary Adler

    Hi Louise,

    If you use the actual lyrics, you may need permission from the entity that  holds the copyright to the song.

  • Louise Canfield

    Hi Mary.   Like you, sometimes a piece of music, a song, hymn, a Mozart Sonata, -- even an advertising jingle  -- just sticks in my head and informs something I write about later.  It could be something a character says, a theme, or sometimes just a mood.  It hadn’t occurred to me until I read your post to use the actual lyrics.  Thanks for the interesting idea!

  • Mary Adler

    That's brilliant to write your own songs. A good solution. I admire your being able to create them. Your book sounds interesting. How did you come to write about an all-girl punk rock band? Any experience there?

  • Suzanne Linn Kamata

    My novel Screaming Divasis about an all-girl punk rock band in 1980s South Carolina that covers songs by The Supremes, and I originally planned on using lyrics in my novel, but my queries to the copyright holders went unanswered.


    I liked the idea of having snippets of songs running through the book, though, so I wrote a song "by" each band member and included the lyrics in the book, and occasionally made references to those songs.

  • Mary Adler

    Hi Patricia.

    The answer to your question will depend on what you are quoting. I wish I were a copyright attorney and could answer your question.  I'm including some links that might help you figure it out.

    The first is an information sheet from the US Copyright office that explains "fair use."  http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html

    The other is a link to a reliable article sourced from Stanford that may also lead you to other links.


    Also Nolo has a discussion about copyright law: http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/copyright-law.

    Good luck.


  • Patricia Robertson

    Ouch! Thank you. This is helpful. I'm preparing a book for self-publication that has single lines from two different songs. Guess I better go back and revise them. I also begin each chapter with a quote from different sources. I credit the sources and they are only a few lines. Do I need to worry about this as well?