Using Famous Quotes On Products: 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.*

Read More: are quotes copyrighted

This post is my attempt to shed some light on the (very complex) issue of famous quotes being used on products. This is not something I like to hear. However, in most cases the answer to the question, “Can I legally quote X on my products?” will be no. With a few exceptions (which will be covered in a moment), the answer is no.

The legal rights to quote are, according to US copyright law (or its speaker), by default the author or speaker. QuotesThey are intellectual property and protected by law. If you are not the original author of a quote, and you wish to SELL something that has the quote on it.

1. Author permission is required to use the words in your work. You must meet Condition 2 if you are unable to get author permission.

2. The author has lost ownership of the quote and it is now in the public domain. This means that anyone can freely use it for any purpose. WhenA quote is almost always made public because it’s not new enough to be protected by copyright. (ItThis doesn’t depend on whether the author has died or is still alive. Here’s where things get complicated. This chart comes from the University of North Carolina and shows how difficult it is to determine if something’s in the public domain. Public Domain Usage Chart - University of North Carolina

It makes my head hurt. It is easy to remember that all works published before 1923 are legally permissible for use. You will find 4 jillion products featuring old quotes like “Be The Change You Wish To See In the World” – that is a great quote. However, it is also legal to use commercially since Gandhi made it in 1906. (Yes, many people believe he never said it. But that’s beside the point.

Famous Quote Legal Example - Prior to 1923

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As you can see there are many other works published after the year 1923 and that would fall within the various categories in this chart. It’s difficult, however, to know what applies where unless your lawyer is an intellectual property attorney or you have one. In my work, I use the pre-1923 rule. People often ask me why I don’t sell products that have more modern quotes. This is the answer!

Using quotes prior to 1923 - Legal


ItIt is important to remember that attribution of a quote to its author doesn’t make it legal for you to use the quote. This was something I have been asked. If you’re not selling work, you can usually use any quote that you wish under the Fair Use Rule (more details here). (I’m not a lawyer, and this blog post does not replace real legal advice.

You can use a quote in your wedding invitations, or place a quote above a photo of a sunset on social media. However, if you want to profit from the intellectual property of someone else, you must comply with intellectual property laws.

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What happens if I don’t follow the rules? Sometimes, it’s nothing. ItIt’s up the person you are quoting (or their estate, if they’re not still alive) or the movie studio, company, or individual that owns the rights, if the quote is from a movie, TV show, etc. to pursue those who have used their words in unauthorized products. Many Etsy shops sell merchandise featuring Steve Jobs quotes. – Steve Jobs’ estate has other important tasks than searching Etsy for violators of his copyright. You will be busted for violating the law if you sell more work, wholesale or on Etsy. If this happens, the initial step will be to get a cease-and desist letter from a quote owner’s lawyer. It will tell you that you are violating copyright law and ask you to stop selling offending products. There is also the possibility of being sued and paying hefty legal fees.

Here’s the problem: ItIt is not acceptable to profit from intellectual property belonging to another person without their permission. Artists would be very upset if someone else used your hand-lettering to their work and sold it without permission. ItIt’s really unethical. It’s not ethical. I fear that Steve Jobs’ people will pursue me. In fact, after feeling really limited creatively and restricted to pre-1923 quotations, I began writing and selling my own stuff. It was the best thing I could do and what led to my card company.

Here are some links I found useful for further reading and clarification:

Guide through the Legal Jungle

Fair Use Doctrine (from

I hope that you found this helpful. If you have questions about the lawfulness of a quote or a piece of IP law in particular, you can contact an IP lawyer. I can however tell you where to find my favorite pie in Los Angeles. The Pie Hole has maple custard

Emily, I Love You

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