Dear Rich: I'm working on a book which will be published and it will include music lyrics, but only the lyrics. These lyrics will be from contemporary artists as well as artists/bands from the 1970's. Do I need to get permission to include them? Talking about great contemporary lyrics, please promise us you'll use some Stephen Merritt lyrics. We just watched this documentary about him and thought, 'Wow, now there's a free-thinking lyric writer.'
Right, you had a question. To some extent, it may depend on what you're doing with the lyrics. If you're using them for purposes of criticism and commentary and are only reprinting a chorus or verse -- usually four or five lines -- you can probably rely on fair use as a defense. (But, as we always warn, there's no guarantee that a music publisher won't hassle you over fair use claims). If you're reprinting more than that, or you are not commenting upon the lyrics, you should seek permission from the music publisher to reprint a song’s lyrics in a book. The fees for such uses are not fixed, so a music publisher can charge whatever the market will bear and fees range from $50 to hundreds of dollars to reprint lyrics in a book. We've provided a "lyric permission" letter in our permissions book, but nowadays you can probably work it out with an email exchange. You can research music publisher information at ASCAP, BMI, or Harry Fox. Alternatively (as the lawyers like to say), if you are self-publishing to a limited audience, you can take the risk and operate without permission, though successful writers opine against that.