Using Other People’s Quotes In Your Work: When Is It OK?

*DISCLAIMER: I am not an intellectual property lawyer (nor any other kind of lawyer) and this post should not be taken as legal advice or permission.*

I get asked a lot about the issue of using famous quotes on products, and this post is my attempt at shedding some light on this (very complicated) topic.

I know this isn’t a fun thing to hear, but in most cases, the answer to the question “Can I legally use X quote on my products?” is going to be no, with a few exceptions (which I’ll get to in a minute).

According to US copyright law, the legal rights to a quote belong by default to its author (or speaker). Quotes are considered intellectual property, which is protected under the law. This means that if you’re not a quote’s original author and you want to SELL something with the quote on it, one of two things must be true:

1: You have the author’s written permission to use their words on your work. If you can’t get the author’s permission for any reason: they won’t give it to you, the quote’s owner is a movie studio (yes, this rule also applies to movie and TV show quotes, and song lyrics), they don’t answer your email, they’re dead, they’re super famous, they’re in hiding, etc., then Condition 2 must be met in order to legally use the quote:

2. The quote is no longer “owned” by the author and it has passed into what’s known as the public domain, meaning it can be freely used by anyone for any purpose. When a quote passes into the public domain, it’s almost always because it’s old enough that its copyright has expired. (It doesn’t have anything to do with whether the author is dead or alive.)

This is where it gets tricky. The following chart is from the University of North Carolina’s website and illustrates how complicated it can be to determine whether something is in the public domain or not:

Public Domain Chart

This chart makes my head hurt. If you break it down into its broadest and easiest rule to understand and remember, it is that works published before 1923 are in the public domain and are therefore legal to use. This is why there are 4 jillion products with old quotes like “Be the change you wish to see in the world” on them — I mean, that’s a great quote, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also legally cleared for commercial usage, since Gandhi said it in 1906. (Yes, I know a lot of people claim he never even said it in the first place, but that’s not the point.)

bethechangeLegal.

As you can see, there are other works published after 1923 that would fall under some of the other categories in this chart and would therefore be in the public domain, but unless you’re an intellectual property lawyer or have one at your disposal, it’s pretty hard to figure out what applies where. This is why, in my work, I follow the pre-1923 rule. People ask me all the time why I don’t sell products with more modern quotes on them: this is why!

BYandJoanLegal.

It’s also important to note that attributing a quote to its author does not make it legal to use the quote, which is something I’ve been asked.

If you’re not selling your work, you can almost always go ahead and use any quote on it you want, under what’s known as the Fair Use Rule (more information about that here). (Again, I’m not a lawyer and this blog post is not a substitute for real legal advice.) If you want to use a quote on your wedding invitations or put a quote over a picture of a sunset and post it on social media, that’s fine. But when you start profiting from someone else’s intellectual property, you need to comply with intellectual property law.

What happens if you don’t comply?

In some cases, nothing. It’s up to the person you’re quoting (or their estate if they’re no longer alive, or the movie studio or company that owns the rights to the quote if it’s from a movie or TV show, etc.) to go after people who are using their words on unauthorized products. This is why there are tons of Etsy shops selling stuff featuring Steve Jobs quotes, etc. — Steve Jobs’ estate generally has more important things to do than look for people on Etsy who are violating his copyright.

However, the more work you sell, whether it’s on Etsy or wholesale, the higher-profile you beome, and the more likely it is that you’ll get busted for breaking the law. If this happens, the first step will generally be a cease-and-desist letter from the quote owner’s attorney, telling you that you are in violation of copyright law and instructing you to stop selling the offending products, but there’s also the possibility of getting sued and having to pay hefty settlement and legal fees.

Here’s the thing, though: It is really not cool to profit from someone else’s intellectual property without their permission, even if you can technically get away with it. If you’re an artist, you’d be pretty pissed if another artist put your hand-lettering on their work and sold it without your permission — and with good reason! It’s just a really unethical thing to do. And that, more than the fear of Steve Jobs’ people coming after me, is why I don’t do it. In fact, when I started to feel really boxed in creatively by being limited to using pre-1923 quotes, I started writing and selling my own stuff, which is what led to my card line and was the smartest thing I could have done!

For further reading and clarification on this topic, here are a couple of links that I have found helpful:

Guide Through the Legal Jungle
Fair Use Doctrine (from ExpertLaw.com)

I hope you guys found this useful! If you have a question about the legality of a specific quote or a specific piece of IP law, please ask an IP lawyer, because I can’t give you legal advice. I can, however, tell you where to get my favorite pie in Los Angeles. (Maple custard at The Pie Hole!)

Love,
Emily

 

32 thoughts on “Using Other People’s Quotes In Your Work: When Is It OK?

  1. I had an issue with using an Oscar Wilde quote a while back. I had done my research and found the same info you did, but I didn’t take into account the fact that there are companies that buy copy rights, presumably for the sole purpose of making money off of infringement cases. I just avoid using quotes now. The whole thing gets too messy.

    • Jenna, that is a really great point and something I totally forgot to address above. I’ve heard of people running into this issue with Mark Twain quotes as well. Thank you for pointing that out!

  2. As a quote junkie, this all strikes such fear into my heart! I adore the eloquence & wit & pathos of famous sayings…how will a mere mortal such as myself ever measure up? I freely use quotes on my cards (OK and I use my own words, too), but it looks like the quote thing is pretty much a total minefield of risk and possible imprisonment and I may want to rethink things. Yikes! Thanks so much, Emily, for shedding light. And for pushing me back to the drawing board to try harder to be clever in my own “write”… Happy New Year, btw! (and I’m pretty sure that phrase is in the public domain)

  3. My favorite part of this whole thing: “when I started to feel really boxed in creatively by being limited to using pre-1923 quotes, I started writing and selling my own stuff. ”

    You’re the best, Emily!

  4. This is timely! I’ve been writing a book that is basically about how a song can take you back to a time, a place, a person, an experience, etc… and is centered around every “boyfriend” I had since the age of twelve .. I guess I better stick to the title of the song and artist when referencing and not actual song lyrics… yes?

    • Hi Stacie! I’m not a lawyer, and you might want to consult one on this- I’m really not sure what the rules are when referencing songs, artists and lyrics in that way. Good luck!

  5. Emily, thank you so much for posting on this issue. I’d seen your delightful work on Etsy but hadn’t been to your blog before a friend (who is aware of a situation I’m currently dealing with) pointed me towards it. I am an artist and a writer…I have built my brand around incorporating my own original writing into my work. And, of course, that original writing shouldn’t be used in anyone else’s work…but I am ripped off regularly, because the common train of thought seems to be that if you see pretty words on Pinterest (or wherever), the very first thing you should do is make your own product using them, without any regard to whether or not you’re forcing the writer of those words to have their work using their words compete with your work using their words. I wish more people would realize how truly hurtful it is. I want to be original. I want my shop to stand out from the sea of Dr. Seuss prints on Etsy. But sadly, my work remaining unique to me has a very short shelf life these days.

    • Ah, Kathy, I’m so sorry that’s been happening to you. It is really crappy, and it’s happened to me too. A lot of people really just don’t think about it, or care. If it’s on the internet, it must be free, right? All I can say is keep doing original work – because not everyone can! :)

  6. Great post Emily. This is an area that not many people are aware of. I see so many lyrics from current songs or quotes from movies use in art, and I know probably 95% of those are made by people who aren’t in the know. I love your pre-1923 rule – but now, seeing Jenna’s quote up above, I’m going to research even further before I use a quote.

  7. I have been doing hand-lettering for a little over six months and was totally ignorant to this information. Thanks for bringing it to light. Luckily, one quote I sell I received written permission for and another is Ralph Waldo Emerson. One thing I have trouble with now is what if the source of the quote seems unknown?

    • Hi Jolie! Thanks for your comment! Again – I am not a lawyer. Usually if a quote is from an unknown source, it’s considered to be in the public domain, but I’d consult an IP lawyer if you want to be sure it’s OK.

  8. Thanks for taking the time to share this helpful info with us, Emily!
    I’ve been working as a graphic/accessories designer for almost 8 years now…and have been thinking of selling products that I designed myself as a creative outlet & side project (stationery, posters, etc…haven’t decided, yet).
    While doing research on independent designers and small business owners who’ve already accomplished my dream, I came across your lovely website and have been occasionally stalking your blog.
    Just wanted to say “thanks” for designing and selling US-made products…and for sharing many helpful info on your blog! I wish you and your company the best for 2014 and many more years to come! xo

  9. This is great information! Hypothetical question: how do you know someone hasn’t already said whatever quote you’re writing? Like if I make a card and it says ‘I’m strong’ (I don’t know why it would say that, just roll with me…) how do I know someone hasn’t already said it and how can someone own the two words ‘I’m strong’? I would think statements need to be trademarked in some way. Because like they say, nothing’s original.

  10. To stir the pot a bit – I found some information about the inability to trademark short phrases that you all might find interesting…

    http://dearrichblog.blogspot.com/2013/10/wants-to-use-beatles-lyrics-as-wall-art.html

    “Copyright laws disfavor protection for short phrases. Such claims are viewed with suspicion by the Copyright Office, whose circulars state that, “… slogans, and other short phrases or expressions cannot be copyrighted.” [1] These rules are premised on two tenets of copyright law.

    First, copyright will not protect an idea. Phrases conveying an idea are typically expressed in a limited number of ways and, therefore, are not subject to copyright protection.

    *Second, phrases are considered as common idioms of the English language and are therefore free to all.*

    Granting a monopoly would eventually “checkmate the public” [2] and the purpose of a copyright clause to encourage creativity-would be defeated.”

    http://fairuse.stanford.edu/2003/09/09/copyright_protection_for_short/

    “In the world of trademarks, short phrases are protected if consumers associate them with particular goods or services… If an author has created a uniquely suggestive phrase, then the courts will protect it under copyright. But if an author’s literary phrase is merely a trivial variation on that which already belongs to the public, copyright will not extend.” so essentially everything not trademarked would have to go to court for a judge to rule if there was enough creativity in the phrase, or if it belongs to basic english language as public domain, or if it’s immediately associated with something else (like just do it – nike obviously).

    Just to complicate things. :P Not everything is totally eliminated just because someone else said it – you can make a strong fair use argument by using portions of a text (so 1 or 2 lines of a poem, or song, or book, or movie, or tv show), not competing with or depriving the copyright owners of commercial gain, and if use appears to be transformative — that is you’re making a new statement.

    • Thanks Ashley! This is all good information, and I never meant for my post to be a comprehensive resource on IP and trademarking. There are a lot of gray areas here. Some of it will come down to your own personal ethics (what you feel is OK in terms of using a writer or musician’s words for profit), and some will come down to the amount of risk you want to assume. Because although, as you pointed out above, some fair use arguments may not hold up in court — court is EXPENSIVE. Even not going to court is expensive. I’ve personally spent a lot of money chasing down copyright infringers this year (companies using my images on their products without my permission) and if someone comes after you, it can cost a significant amount of money to defend yourself, even if you don’t end up in court.

  11. Wonderful post! I know you’re not a lawyer, but I wanted to drop this comment in in case you did know. I’ve been throwing the idea around of creating a website that has custom desktop backgrounds/facebook covers/twitter backgrounds, etc, using stock images (paid for or verified free to use/modify) and quotes. All downloads on the website would be completely free. But what if I’m profiting from advertisers who advertise on my blog. Is it still ok to use the quotes (from songs, etc) on the backgrounds if the downloads themselves are free, but I’m still profiting from people coming to the website? Thanks in advance! – Danielle

  12. Thanks so much for this! I’m starting a product line that is meant to have quotes, but now I’m thinking of creating my own. One question I have, however, is how do you know for sure that what you say hasn’t been said?

  13. Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your post seem to be
    running off the screen in Safari. I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue
    or something to do with browser compatibility but I thought I’d post
    to let you know. The layout look great though!

    Hope you get the problem fixed soon. Cheers

  14. Very useful post Emily, thank you!

    I’m looking for quotes to put on images for a status site and was wondering about trademark infringement.

    Do you have any good resources for pre 1923 quotes?

    Otherwise, I take it I should find pre 1923 quotes and search the trademark office database.

    I like the art on your cards as well very pleasing! Maybe We could work together and I provide links to the product pages.

    -P

    • Hi Pauly, I’m sorry it’s taken me a bit to respond! I don’t have any specific recommendations/resources for public domain quotes, unfortunately. What you suggest is what I did – found pre-1923 quotes that I liked and searched the database. Thanks!

  15. Emily, thanks so much for this post! I was thinking if hunting down quotations that were in the public domain to use in some of my work, but it still rubs me the wrong way to profit from someone else’s words. This was the last nudge I needed to just forge ahead and use my own words in whatever I’m doing. It’s tempting to use famous quotations because they’re just so dead-on and loveable, but I’ll sleep better knowing I’m profiting from my own ingenuity than someone else’s. It was a delight to stumble onto your site today!

  16. Thanks so much for this post as I’ve always wondered about this. Based on this, I guess I would obtain written permission from someone else’s work and maybe be open to paying some sort of royalty, if I really wanted to use the quote. That said I actually have a greater interest in using prints and stationery to publish my own phrases and poetry. I see above that this probably doesn’t apply to short phrases, but I was wondering if I should copyright poems before attempting to create products featuring them?
    By the way I LOVE what you do; especially that infamous grocery bag – it reminds me of something my mom and her girlfriend (who have both passed away recently) would say about their bags and it totally makes me smile. Bless you:) –Clarifying that they weren’t lovers but best friends.

    • Thanks Erika! I think it’s probably always best to copyright any writing that you can (poems included) before creating any products featuring them, or even putting them out for public consumption online. That’s something I’ve learned the hard way. :)

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