Copyright and Song Lyrics

I recently published a couple of hubs about Fair Use and Public Domain that were sparked by my disagreement with a friend about posting song lyrics on a message board. About the same time, I posted a video on youtube of friends dancing and singing at a karaoke performance. I realized my hypocrisy and went off to do some research. Interestingly enough, as these things sometimes go, I discovered much more support for my argument that reproducing song lyrics was wrong when I was trying to prove something to myself instead of to my friend.

Why would I bother to argue about this with a friend? Because I agree with the sentiments of the National Music Publishers Association. In the paper, The Engine of Free Expression: Copyright on the Internet, the task force explains, "The threat of piracy--the use of someone else's creative work without permission or compensation--has grown with the Internet. The Net has given every person on earth with access to a computer and a modem the ability to engage in the unauthorized, mass distribution of any type of creative work."

I discovered confirmation of my opinion that copying the lyrics of a song on a message board was a violation of copyright laws when I was researching how posting videos of a karaoke performance might infringe on property rights. Interestingly enough, copying the lyrics is covered by a different set of rights than copying and performing songs. In fact, some karaoke manufactures have paid the price for not obtaining all of the correct rights. (See "9th Circuit Rules in Karaoke Copyright Case" on the Tech Law Journal website.)

In Getting Permission: How to License & Clear Copyrighted Materials Online and Off, Richard Stim explains that performing rights societies (BMI, ASCAP and SESAC) grant licenses to play songs in public, but that does not allow putting the words to the song on the screen. He goes on to explain, "You may need permission to reprint music notation or lyrics--for example, to quote lyrics on a website...Generally you need permission from the music publisher to reprint all or part of a song's sheet music or lyrics." (p 116)


The Public Domain Information Project provides a libray of public domain lyrics, which everyone is free to copy, as well as information on what not to do.

"If any music or lyrics are still under copyright protection

  • you CANNOT reproduce the music or lyrics
  • you CANNOT distribute the music or lyrics either for free, for no profit, or for profit
  • you CANNOT perform the music or lyrics in public
  • you CANNOT play a recording of the music or lyrics in public--even if you own the CD
  • you CANNOT make a derivative work or arrangement for public use in any form"

When Yahoo launched it's Music Engine powered by GraceNote, Fred J. Aun wrote in 2007 that "While many online searchers may not be overly concerned with the legalities of downloading song lyrics, Yahoo points out that doing so from unauthorized sites is a form of copyright infringement." According to their website, Gracenote has "A Lyric-specific royalty payment system ensures that songwriters get paid seamlessly."

If my friend reads this, she might still think I am still overreacting. She might think the artists appreciate her publicizing their work, and she might be right. But it is more clear than ever to me that it is not okay to copy song lyrics into a message board post on the internet.

Thirteen of Thirty

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DonnaCSmith profile image

DonnaCSmith 7 years ago from Central North Carolina

Very good information!

anonymous 7 years ago

Just because there's a law protecting it doesn't make it any less inane. Copyright laws in many cases are so badly out of date and out of touch that they need some serious reform.

SwordShine95 profile image

SwordShine95 6 years ago

Hmm... very interesting. I guess this explains why YouTube blocked my latest video worldwide. I didn't think that posting lyrics in a YouTube video was against the law, because it seems like there are SO MANY people who do it.

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