May I have a word?

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 2 August 2011



Evans, S. (2011), "May I have a word?", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 24 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

May I have a word?

Article Type: Literature and insights From: Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Volume 24, Issue 6

The essence of song lyrics, as with much poetry, is distillation: a work that reveals some truth about human existence. For instance, Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” pithily reflects nostalgic regret when it says, “all my away/now it seems stay” (Lennon-McCartney, 1965). As we look at the rich cultural implications of our human activities, we can try to encourage a dialogue about such things—but just be careful what you say.

A recently prepared research paper draws on the lyrics of a number of popular musical recordings, and how they related to the world of commerce. It led to some interesting questions, including this key one: who determines what you can legitimately quote in these circumstances? Does it matter how long the original lyrics and the quotation are? What happens, for instance, when the song lyrics consist of a maniacal laugh and just two words? It’s all about copyright and, yes, Elvis is involved.

In general, the Copyright Law of the country, in which the particular use occurs, is what determines allowable reproduction. The Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) provide some protections, with certain permitted uses in each jurisdiction, such as fair use (aka fair dealing), usually for educational purposes. The idea of fair use is to balance the goal of free speech with affording appropriate protection and reward to the creator of a work.

Let’s begin by looking at the situation in my own country, Australia. As it happens, song lyrics are specifically mentioned in the Australian guidelines from the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL): “Copyright law in Australia protects musical works, any accompanying lyrics, the published edition and sound recordings”. The limit of fair use is that, “only 10 per cent of an individual piece of music may be copied under these provisions” (Copyright Agency Limited [Australia], 2009a3).

What if I were to say that in my research I want to make a point about the Beatles’ 12-bar blues song, “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” (Lennon-McCartney, 1968). The lyrics comprise just 13 words in all so, assuming a 10 per cent “allowance”, can I quote 1.3 words without the explicit permission of Sir Paul? Because there is no copyright protection on titles, I can quote its eight words as a title. Actually, those eight words also comprise most of the lyrics of the song and, though I can tell you that fact, I can’t quote them as lyrics. Still, that leaves only another five words in the song and from them I can cite the following, “No-one w … ”, before I have to stop. At this point, I have apparently exhausted my quotation quota, and you’ll just have to guess the other 3.7 words yourself.

By the way, it would be more complicated if I wanted to cite the lyrics of the Surfaris’ hit tune “Wipe Out” (Berryhill et al., 1963) since they consist entirely of manic laughter (several “ha-ha”) followed by two words that are the same as the song’s title, but which I cannot repeat here as lyrics. Essentially, this track is an instrumental piece, though working out where the threshold is between a song and an instrumental with some vocals is not a job I would like to tackle. It could require an entertaining algorithm, nonetheless.

There is more to it than the 10 per cent factor. Back to CAL for another ingredient in the puzzle:

You are likely to need permission to reproduce a quote if: the quotation is a “work” for the purposes of copyright, or the quotation is an important part of a “work” (Australian Copyright Council, 2006, p. 2).

The lyrics of a given song are generally quite short; certainly when compared with whole books, book chapters, and even articles. The question of what constitutes “an important part” is unclear.

Reproducing or communicating 10 per cent of a work may be permissible for the purposes of research or study. Generally though, there is no standard percentage or proportion of a work, or number of words, that can be used without infringing copyright. In every case it is a question of whether an important, rather than a large, part of the work has been reproduced. Clearly, the number of words or proportion of a work that constitutes an important part, will differ in every case (Australian Copyright Council, 2006, p. 4).

In Australia, a Statutory Educational licence also operates, allowing “10 per cent of the number of words or one chapter” for a digital reproduction (Copyright Agency Limited, 2009b). This refers to sheet music, so it would be sensible to assume lyrics were covered. Beyond this 10 per cent level, you need permission from the copyright owner. Strictly speaking, however, our purpose is not educational. So, our paper is a piece of research, and it looks like we can use up to 10 per cent of the lyrics of a song without permission, unless the quotation is an “important part”. This begs the question why we would want to quote unimportant parts. Anyway, from the Australian perspective, then, it looks like we may need to request permissions.

But our paper was not produced for Australian audiences alone. We need to know what happens in other jurisdictions. The songs to which we refer also come from several countries, so what kind of reception should we expect from the publishers?

In the US, copyright applies to “musical works, including any accompanying words” (United States Copyright Office, 2010a, p. 3). Helpfully, the US Copyright Office has some other interesting information, including “How do I protect my sighting of Elvis?” through Copyright. The answer, essentially, is that unless you have an associated image or recording of the event, you can’t.

Anyway, the doctrine of fair use does apply per section 107 of the 1976 Copyright Act (United States Copyright Office, 2010a), but how is it described there?

There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.

The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material (US Copyright Office, 2010b, “Copyright fair use FL-102”).

So, for the US, we need to get permissions. One more stop?

In the UK, protection is afforded by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (UK). It regards song lyrics as literary works. Under this law, fair dealing includes “Research and private study”, and also “Criticism or review”. Given our state of mind when preparing the paper, these would seem to cover us, but how does it work?

There is no simple formula or percentage that can be applied. You may have seen figures like “up to 10 per cent” or “no more than 400 words” quoted in some publications, but such figures are at best a rough guide and can be misleading. What is acceptable will vary from one work to another (Copyright Service UK, 2009).

More recent and more cautious statements add that, “Unless it is explicitly allowed under fair use or fair dealing rules, any unauthorised use of copyright work can potentially lead to legal action” (Copyright Service UK, 2011a), and, “Permission should be sought from the original owner before using copied content in work that you produce” (Copyright Service UK, 2011b). So, in the UK, it seems that we also need to seek permissions.

A journal may feature academic work of a kind normally regarded as research, and charges its readers to access such work as a commercial enterprise. In that case, no 10 per cent quoting allowance is made for research, criticism, review or education. You may have seen reviews of musical releases in magazines that quote extensively from individual songs, and I am not sure how they legally get away with that given that they charge you to buy a copy, unless they applied for permissions to do so – which is highly doubtful. Such quotes are not exclusively responses to freshly released recordings either, but can be articles reviewing a performer’s entire ouvre.

It might seem tongue-in-cheek to say that the moral of this story is to not get tangled up in intellectual enquiry where you wish to quote from subject matter that is very brief – unless you are prepared to wait out the permissions process, and the prospect of having to take no answer as a No. Should one aim to study lengthier pieces of writing instead, and stay away from people who are inclined to say what they think in concise ways? Maybe.

Where to go next? Essentially, the rights to use lyrics need to be sought and explicitly given, and each country has its own organisations that handle them. In Australia, that work is undertaken by the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), the Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society (AMCOS), and the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia Limited (PPCA). In the US, it is expected that permissions will be sought from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), or SESAC (not an acronym), which bodies collect and distribute fees for performing rights and the use of musical recordings, etc. In the UK it is PRS for Music, though lyrics are not expressly mentioned on their site.

In the immortal (and, sadly for my purposes at the moment, important) words of Lennon and McCartney, ‘Love ** @!! úüù need’ (Lennon-McCartney, 1967). However, if you are thinking of setting out on project that seeks to quote from short pieces of original text, you will also need a map through the worlds of copyright and publishing practice. The creators of your source material have their rights.

In this issue, we have creative work from Roger Colbeck in which he uses a metaphoric device to conflate a day’s research work undertaken in an unusual space, on the one hand, with routines of work and leisure on the other. On a more solemn note, Barbara L’Huillier writes of the state of world poverty with a provocative poem set out as a recipe.

I look forward to your contribution to this section of the journal, which can be sent to me at:

Steve Evans - Literary Editor


Australian Copyright Council (2006), Information Sheet G034v09 Quotes & Extracts: Copyright Obligations, July, Brisbane, p. 4

Berryhill, B., Connolly, P., Fuller, J. and Wilson, R. (1963), “Wipe Out” (Single 45), Dot Records, Gallatin, TN

Copyright Agency Limited [Australia] (2009a), “Copying print music”, updated March 2009, available at: 23 April 2011)

Copyright Agency Limited [Australia] (2009b), “Copying rights for educational institutions”, updated March 2009, available at: (accessed 23 April 2011)

Copyright Service UK (2009), “Fact sheet P-27: Using the work of others”, November (last amended: 30 November 2009) available at: (accessed 23 April 2011)

Copyright Service UK (2011a), “Common questions about copyright: using the work of others”, available at: 23 April 2011)

Copyright Service UK (2011b), “Top 10 copyright myths”, available at: (accessed 23 April 2011)

Lennon-McCartney (1965), “Yesterday”, (Single 45), Parlophone Records, London

Lennon-McCartney (1967), “All you need is love” (Single 45), Parlophone Records, London

Lennon-McCartney (1968), “Why don’t we do it in the road?”, The Beatles, [LP], Apple Records, London

United States Copyright Office (2010a), Copyright Basics, updated August 2010, available at: (accessed 23 April 2011)

United States Copyright Office (2010b), Copyright Fair Use FL-102, updated November 2009, available at: 23 April 2011)

Further Reading

Copyright Service UK (2000), “Fact sheet P-01: UK Copyright Law”, April (last amended: 27 November 2009), available at: http;// (accessed 23 April 2011)

United States Copyright Office (2011), Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright, updated 21 September 2010, available at: 23 April 2011)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal (AAAJ) welcomes submissions of both research papers and creative writing. Creative writing in the form of poetry and short prose pieces is edited for the Literature and Insights Section only and does not undergo the refereeing procedures required for all research papers published in the main body of AAAJ.

Related articles