Does copyright protect quotes? A quick way to know

Are quotes copyrighted? Hero image

Does copyright protect quotes? To put it simply, yes and no.

We’ve all been there at some point. After all, personalised T-shirts with quotes on them are some of the most popular designs out there, but can you actually do it? If someone says something that you like, can you put it on a T-shirt?

The answer, as it often is with most things in life, is complicated.

Copyright VS Trademark

Before we dwell in the murky waters of intellectual property, first we must acknowledge the difference between copyright and trademark. They’re often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Copyright is used to protect works of art while trademark is designed to protect brands and companies. For example, J K Rowling (the author of the Harry Potter books) has the copyright of the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but its logo has been trademarked by Warner Bros.

Copyright is inherent and universal. The moment you create a work of art or literature, you have the copyright, while trademark is a legal stamp a company has to register in order to protect its symbols. If you want to find out more about copyrights and trademarks, go read the post on intellectual property we wrote a few months ago.

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So, can I put a quote on my T-shirt?

There are exceptions (which we will discuss later), but generally speaking, people have the copyright of words they put down on writing. This rule does not apply to the things we say, though. Ideas cannot be copyrighted, which means that if you don’t want to be quoted, then don’t say anything.

As a general rule, always, ALWAYS credit the author properly and you’ll avoid most trouble. But to be on the safe side, I would stick to the following rules:

Use a quote if:

Is public domain
Any person can quote a work of art it if it’s public domain (meaning the copyright has expired). In the UK, this happens 70 years after the author’s death for most works.

It’s for a parody, critique or review
In order to get your point across, you are allowed to use bits and pieces of someone else’s work for parodic, critiquing or reviewing reasons. Just make sure you’re not too offensive because then you may be accused of trying to damage someone else’s reputation (that’s called defamation — and you can get sued for that).

It’s short and/or generic
Copyright doesn’t defend short sentences arguing that it would stifle creativity and therefore beat the purpose of copyright in the first place. The only exception is when the phrase includes the name of a recognisable character.

It’s the lyric of an anthem
Anthems like flags and other national symbols aren’t copyrighted.

You said it yourself
Obvious reasons!

copyright quotes, girl t-shirt

Don’t use a quote on a T-shirt if:

It’s copyrighted
Just to be safe, don’t quote anything characters say on anything scripted like movies, TV shows and plays or if it’s a literary work like a novel or poem. The only exception, like we mentioned above, would be if the copyright has expired. Authors such as Shakespeare, Poe and Anne Frank are fair use.

It comes from a speech
It is understandable to be inspired by a lecture such as Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts, but these like all written works are copyrighted.

It’s recognisable
If the quote is recognisable and doesn’t fall into any of the “safe” categories, I would stay away from it.

Things to keep in mind:

Even if you make sure that there’s no trademark now on the quote you are borrowing, it might still get one in the future and that means that you could get into trouble for using content that wasn’t protected, to begin with. As we said before, this is unlikely to happen due to the copyright relationship with short sentences, but still, that doesn’t mean that a phrase won’t get protected in the future if it becomes popular.

A potential scenario would be using a Youtuber’s catchphrase to make a T-shirt. It might be tempting to cash in on the channel’s popularity, especially if they haven’t protected their content, but once they have enough resources they will trademark the expression, trust me.

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Tips:
If you believe that the quote you want to use is trademarked, do some research. Look at the UK’s Intellectual Property Office. If it is protected and you still wish to use it (and you have the money), you can still contact whoever holds the rights. Sometimes these companies sell licenses to third parties.

So to sum it up

Quotes can be trademarked if they’re recognisable and mention famous characters. Everyone has the copyright to anything they write down, but it won’t be protected if the sentence is short or generic. Also, most people won’t bother pursuing you for using it on a T-shirt as long as it is properly attributed. When in doubt just remember:

You CAN use a quote on a T-shirt if…

  • It’s public domain
  • Its author has died over 70 years ago
  • It’s a parody
  • It’s a critique or review
  • It’s short and/or generic
  • It doesn’t mention a recognisable character
  • It’s the lyric of an anthem
  • It was said and not recorded in any way
  • It was said by you!

You CAN’T use a quote on a T-shirt if…

  • Its author is still alive
  • Its author has been dead for less than 70 years
  • It’s trademarked (like a famous slogan)
  • It comes from a speech
  • It comes from a contemporary scripted work
  • It comes from a contemporary literary work
  • It’s recognisable

While we like to provide useful content to our readers, we feel it is necessary to note that we’re not experts on the subject and would suggest seeking legal advice from a lawyer specialised in copyright and/or trademark if you have any doubts.

Text: Harald Meyer-Delius
Research: Luna Giontella

Disclaimer: This article represents the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Printsome as a company. Neither Printsome nor the author are responsible for copyright or trademark infringements that could be committed by the users of this website.


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  1. Although I’ve no experience at all I’d like to sell my own t – shirts that display positive sayings I’ve heard or seen. I’ve collected many and even have some of my own words and sayings that sound positive.

    My first intention is to buy my own equipment and learn to screen print etc myself as I feel it may be more profitable.
    I may also wish to just submit my ideas for a second party to do the work then buy from them and sell them myself. Although, after I’ve paid for the shirts, I’d have to charge more to make a profit, mmm? It may be that potential customers of mine find they are too expensive.
    Another project I’d like to undertake is to use a heraldic/ mayoral crest from a town and print it on a shirt. Then have around it a positive rhyming quote which would show the town in a good light. I’d like to know if this venture falls into the public domain as you’ve quoted national symbols aren’t copyrighted. Please advise how I can go about this or what approach I can use. Thankyou very much.

    Yours sincerely

    Peter McNally.

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Peter,

      Thank you for writing a comment on our blog post. Regarding your question about the heraldic/mayoral crests, I did some research on the subject but couldn’t find any specific information. Like we mentioned in the post, national symbols should be safe to use but I’m not 100% sure. If I were you, I would still call the council of the crest’s town you want to use and ask. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help. Good luck with your T-shirt business!

      Cheers,
      Harald

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