Authors have been quoting song lyrics in their books for eons, but if you plan to quote lyrics written after 1923, be prepared to do some research — and get out your checkbook — long before releasing your book.
This post was updated September 2017.
When a music artist records a song previously released by another artist, that’s called a cover. The current artist is “covering” the other artist’s song. A music artist does not need permission to record and release a previously recorded song, but he/she does need to license the song and pay royalties for every copy made. Note that’s every copy “made,” not “sold.” So if my band covers “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams, and I’m making 1,000 CDs (initially, of course, ’cause we’re gonna blow up and sell 100,000), I’ve got to pay 9.1¢ per CD copy made that includes the song. So that’s $91 paid to the copyright owner – typically through the company that is publishing the music. When my album does blow up, and and I need to reorder 100,000 copies, that’ll put $9,100 in Pharell’s pocket (or at least in the publishing company’s coffers). If I only sell 25 copies of the initial pressing, I still need to pay for the right to include the recording on the other 975 copies sitting in my mom’s basement.
Now that’s all well and good, but it does NOT give me permission to reprint the song’s lyrics in my liner notes. For that, I need permission from the copyright owner, and there’s no guarantee I’ll get it, and certainly no guarantee the process of soliciting approval will be quick.
This is why, as you may have noticed, the lyrics to cover songs are very often not included in an album’s liner notes, even though all the artist’s original song lyrics are. Technically, as a matter of fact, the artist needs to get permission from him/herself to print the lyrics on his/her album. Seriously. Anything already published is protected by copyright, and that means you need to seek permission to republish. See More . . .