But they would be wrong.
We’ve talked about quoting people—living and dead—and making sure we’ve done it correctly, but now let’s talk about what’s permissible to quote.
We all have a song that changed life as we knew it, right? Profound, man. It came along at a time when we were hurting or happy and it had lyrics that perfectly encapsulated that feeling—and still does. (For me, it’s “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne.) Powerful stuff. But you may not quote those lyrics in your book without getting permission from the copyright holder, often a publishing company—and that will cost you both time and money.
Here’s an article about a British author’s experience with using songs to set a mood in his novel. I must say I was pretty shocked that he had to pay for one line (his publisher was very cautious). You see, there is such a thing as the Fair Use Doctrine, which, according to the The Chicago Manual of Style, “allows authors to quote from other authors’ work … for purposes of review or criticism or to illustrate or buttress their own points”—without seeking permission. (You still must transcribe the work accurately and correctly cite the copyright source.)
However, while the doctrine establishes a test for fair use (here’s a very informative look at that from Joel Friedlander), it does not go so far as to establish exact limits. Chicago says, “As a general rule, one should never quote more than a few contiguous paragraphs of prose or lines of poetry at a time,” but this is in the section on copyright permissions. Chicago clearly believes you should expect to seek permission, even for epigraphs and “the limited quotation of song lyrics, poetry, and the like in the context of an interior monologue or fictional narrative.”
Pay attention here. You should expect to seek permission. But that sounds a lot like work, doesn’t it? (Jane Friedman, a publishing and media expert at University of Cincinnati, wrote a great article on this very subject recently.) Many authors I’ve worked with are shocked when I suggest they’d better get started. Remember, too, permission seeking is the author’s responsibility (not his publisher, nor his editor!) and any fees are his responsibility also. (Most Bible publishers offer a blank permission that requires no formal permission document, just a credit on the copyright page.)
All of the publishers I’ve worked with have their own rules of thumb for quoting lyrics or poetry, and they are very, very conservative. They don’t want to be sued.
And neither do you. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission? Nah. Better safe than sorry!
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”