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Q: Copyright on quotations ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Copyright on quotations
Category: Business and Money > Small Businesses
Asked by: gaz1974-ga
List Price: $100.00
Posted: 06 Sep 2006 10:03 PDT
Expires: 06 Oct 2006 10:03 PDT
Question ID: 762736

If I were to sell a T-Shirt with a quotation on it would I be
infringing copyright? Would there be differences in types of
quotation, ie say something from a famous historical figure against a
quote from a movie. So where as Neil Armstrong's famous line may not
be copyrighted could say the famous dont give a damn quote from Gone
With The Wind be as it was written by someone.
Subject: Re: Copyright on quotations
Answered By: pafalafa-ga on 06 Sep 2006 20:13 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars

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 pafalafa-ga on 06 Sep 2006 20:15 PDT
I had a spelling malfunction (you can quote me!).  I meant, of course,
"wardrobe malfunction".


Request for Answer Clarification by gaz1974-ga on 07 Sep 2006 03:54 PDT
Thank you very much

If you could just clarify one thing for me.

You said that Neil Armstrong's quote would be in the public domain as
long as he was a federal employee. Does this mean that when he ceased
being a federal employee the copyright reverted to him. Does it also
mean that if you are not a federal employee, for example a sports star
who says something good, is the copyright yours or the sports team?

Once again thanks

Clarification of Answer by pafalafa-ga on 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
for you.

Best of luck,

gaz1974-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars

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