You’ve seen the t-shirts. You have been invited to wear pink on Wednesdays and admonished not to put baby in the corner. There is always money in banana stands. But — can you legally print movie quotes on your products?
I know that is the most lawyer-esque thing ever (other than arguing for fun and an impressive highlighter collection). But, in truth, it is complicated.
In the United States, a work is copyrighted from the moment it is fixed in some tangible way. The lyrics in your head are NOT protected. But, the moment you put them on a napkin — they can be. (HINT: A work is copyrighted even if you DON’T see the magic ©, the © just means the owner is trying to play a little offense).
In the case of quotes, either from movies or TV shows, those words and phrases are likely fixed in multiple ways (in a script/screenplay, on a DVD, in a digital file on a hard drive somewhere, etc.) So, as soon as someone writes down a good zinger in a sweaty caffeine-fueled writer’s room somewhere — it is technically copyrighted. So say “hello” to my little friend. However, the copyright owner cannot sue someone over it until it has been registered with the United States Copyright Office. But there are some 49 shades of grey area where the intellectual property law is concerned. Using copyrighted material may be legal under one of these conditions:
- Personal Use: If you are using a movie quote for purely personal use or non-commercial use, you are probably safe: family reunion t-shirt, custom tote for your bridesmaids, drawstring bag for your youth group.
- Short: If the quote is small and falls into the “short words and phrases” category, you might be okay: “I’ll be back”, “you complete me”, “my precious” will probably pass muster, but if you try to jam the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy script onto a poster — may Peter Jackson strike you down.
- Fair Use: You successfully argue the defense of “fair use.” The little problem here is that “fair use” is only a defense after you are in court. And fair use is tricky — with every court coming down a little differently. It is a case-by-case analysis. So, you have no assurances ahead of time that it will work and it will only save your bacon after you have likely spent a good deal of time, money, and stress in going to the mattresses — e.g. litigating your side. A court can consider factors like how much material you quoted, how meaningful was the quote as part of the whole work, how much you transformed the copyrighted material, if you were directly competing with the copyright owner’s products, and so on. You may have a stronger fair use defense if your work is criticism, commentary, news, educational, or parody — but nothing is set in stone.
If you are using a licensed or trademarked image or logo — it is even more clear cut that you are infringing and would lose any legal challenge to your goods.
But hark — you say — I have seen people schilling their quote wares on the internet!
I’m sure you have. And we all know the internet is the ultimate arbiter of good and moral choices.
Here’s the deal — if you are selling someone else’s words that have an active copyright on them (meaning they are not in the public domain, or published pre-1923) then you could be breaking the law. You may not be caught. You may not even get a scary cease and desist letter, let alone have your profits or business assets subject to forfeiture — but it doesn’t make it right.
Respecting copyrights makes sense — because usually the whole reason you are using copyrighted material is because someone else invested the time and expense to create it and market it in a way that it became popular and part of the cultural lexicon.
Giving someone attribution is nice — better than nothing — but it doesn’t make it legal.
If that is inconceivable to you — the word may not not mean what you think it means.
Be creative. Transform the material in a way that is uniquely yours — and you’ll have something of your very own. Go get ‘em tiger.
This post, although written by non-lawyers, has some good tips and visuals for legal t-shirt designs.
If you want a robust legal analysis, this law review article does a great job.
And — if you only speak in movie quotes and sarcasm and want the 100 most popular movie quotes to train for an epic Netflix binge, click here.
**DISCLAIMER: While I’m a attorney — I’m not your attorney. The information given here is general in nature and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you have specific questions — please consult a lawyer. **