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Can song lyrics be used on a T-shirt if you use quotation marks and credit the artist and song?

Brookhaven, MS |

This seems to be a tough question to find an answer to. I want to start a small screen printing company and wanted to use song lyrics or quotes from various artists as artwork on the back of each shirt. If I use quotation marks around each phrase and also credit the artist and song, would it be legal? These lyrics are mainly one liners from a song.

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Best Answer

Your ability to quote song lysrics are probably ok, without the need to use quotes, or credit the songwriter or perfomer, but there's no one-size-fits-all answer to a general query like this, which could be why you can't find "an' anwer. There isn't one.

tt depends on the song, and whether the songwriter has copyrighted the portion you want to use, or whether they or someone else has trademarked it for some confusingly similar product or sevice that you'd be infringing on if you used it on a t-shirt. There's no getting around the need to run each quote by a qualified IP lawyer.

Disclaimer: Please note that this answer does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied on, since each state has different laws, each situation is fact specific, and it is impossible to evaluate a legal problem without a comprehensive consultation and review of all the facts and documents at issue. This answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.


Remember that copyright infringement amounts to the unauthorized use of an exclusive right of a copyright holder. So, the issue becomes whether you have a defense to copyright infringement.

You should first check to make sure there is in fact a copyright on the work you seek to use and that it has not entered the public domain. Generally, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.

You should next consult with a copyright attorney regarding fair use, which will look at the four factors: (1) purpose and character of your use; (2) nature of the copyrighted work; (3) amount and substantiality of the portion taken; and (4) effect of the use upon the potential market. Assuming you will be selling these t-shirts and profiting commercially, any defense of fair use will likely fail. You should recognize that there is really no fixed amount or duration of song lyrics that would constitute fair use. The fourth factor may be determinative.

Attribution to the artist/author may not be enough either. Absent permission from the copyright owner, which carries with it the risk of a "no" response or request for "royalties," you do face risk of copyright infringement, among other possible causes of action.

You should consult with a copyright attorney who can provide an opinion in the jurisdiction where such a dispute would be decided. NOTE: this should not be considered as legal advice.


I agree with my colleagues regarding the general copyright infringement analysis. However, even if you are able to adequately determine that this either will not constitute infringement or you have a valid defense, you may still be liable for other claims the copyright holder could bring against you. These claims could include things like unfair business practices, misappropriation, or deceptive trade practices. It would be smart to at least discuss these possibilities with an attorney who handles this type of work.

The above answer is not "legal advice" as specified under any pertinent rules governing the Professional Responsibilities of Lawyers and should not be relied upon. An attorney-client relationship has not been established by virtue of this correspondence. Legal issues are often complex and involve local laws and facts which may not be effectively communicated without a complete consultation.


One factor in copyright infringement is the portion of the copyrighted work that you have copied. But like all things dealing with copyright infringement, this is a gray area and there are no hard and fast rules. So this doesn't mean that if you have only copied 3% of the lyrics then there won't be an infringement because the portion misappropriated is so small. Particularly with music, there are some lines which carry greater protection than others. There is substantial caselaw which establishes this, particularly a US Supreme Court case involving 2 Live Crew.

I'm assuming that most any one-liner's worth copying are going to be something recognizable like "Excuse me, while I kiss the sky." For this fact, this sounds like a bad idea to me. You need to discuss this with your own attorney before moving forward.

Disclaimer: In no way is this information considered a legal advice, but is only a statement of the law. This information does not form a client-attorney relationship.

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