For currently popular phrases from movies, books and such, the answer
is pretty clear-cut...copy the phrase, and you could be in for some
big, expensive legal troubles.
Have a look at this famous copyright case, Universal City Studios v.
Kamar Industries, which pitted a maker of coffee mugs with quotes on
them against (gulp) Steven Spielberg and company.
The case, which revolved around use of the phrase "E.T phone home",
can be seen here:
In essence, the court decided that use of recognizable phrases or
recognizable characters like E.T., is not only a likely infringment on
copyright, but violates several other intellectual property
protections as well under trademark law, commercial misappropriation,
and so on.
Take note, in particular, of the following language from the case:
...Evidence introduced at the hearing conclusively establishes that
the inscriptions appearing on the defendant's products, "I love You,
E.T." and "E.T. Phone Home" were copied from Universal's copyrighted
motion picture...The test for copyright infringement is "whether an
average lay observer would recognize the alleged copy as having been
appropriated from the copyrighted work." ... The inscriptions on the
defendant's products would be readily recognizable to the lay observer
as key lines of dialogue from the copyrighted movie and, therefore,
the test for copyright infringement has been satisfied.
End of discussion!
If you make use of a well-known quote or phrase on a commercial
product, you too may have your day in court against the likes of Mr.
I wouldn't recommend it!
On the other hand, quotes from federal government employees like Neil
Armstrong are generally in the public domain (only during the time
they are actually in the federal government's employ).
And quotes that become popular without being part of a clear-cut
commercial work (e.g. a quote like "wadrobe malfunction"), receive far
less protection under intellectual property laws, and can probably be
used with relative safety.
Lastly, anything that originated before the year 1923 has had its
copyright expire, and is in the public domain in the US, so is fair
However, please take note of the disclaimer at the bottom of the page.
Google Answers is no substitute for professional legal advice, so
please consider seeking the services of a lawyer before you make your
final decisions in this matter.
Let me know, via the Request for Clarification feature, if there is
anything else I can do for you on this.
All the best.
search strategy -- used bookmarked sites for copyright
Clarification of Answer by
07 Sep 2006 05:14 PDT
And thanks to you, too, for the generous feedback.
As for your follow-up:
--a statement by a federal employee stays in the public domain, even
after the employee leaves public service. So, yes, the quotes from
astronauts on the moon can be used freely.
--the sport's guy quote is a different story, and something of a grey
area. One the one hand, courts are reluctant to extend copyright to
short phrases or catchy quotes (in the ET case, it was the entire film
that was being protected, even though the case involved a short
quote). Also, phrases that are not associated with a clearly
commercial product, like a film, are far less likely to result in a
complaint about infringement. On the other hand, people are entitled
to protect their 'privacy', which in some cases can include their
image, or even simply things that they have said.
Bottom line here is that the law is not terribly clear, and that if
someone wants to bring a lawsuit against you, there's nothing to stop
them. Whether they would win the suit is an open question, but do you
really want to risk it?
If there's a specific phrase you have in mind, perhaps you can let us
know by posting a new question, and we can look into it in more detail
Best of luck,