How can I sell someone else's song lyrics on T-Shirts & Art prints legally?
What can i do to make this legal? Should i make a contract that allows the author of the lyric a percentage of the profit? What are my options?
4 attorney answers
Infringing copyright is very likely not your legal concern. The general rule is that short phrases [including a song lyric] are not copyrightable apart from the entirety of the work in which they appear.
Your legal concern is federal unfair competition law -- specifically, "false endorsement" and "false association" law [15 U.S.C. 1125(a)(1)(A)]. If potential purchasers of your products would readily associate a line from a song lyric displayed on that product with a particular and well-known musician then your offer for sale of that product could create a false association between your product and that musician. In short, the musician -- not you -- enjoys the right to determine which products he or she wants to endorse and the products with which he or she wants to be associated.
The key inquiry, of course, is whether the musician is closely associated with the song lyric -- such as Jimmy Buffet and "Changes in latitudes, changing in attitudes" or Paul Simon and "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." Display either of those lyrics on products and you'll likely get a cease and desist letter.
Recently a federal court determined that even DEAD celebrities [through their estates] can assert a false endorsement claim. That's legal nonsense to me but it exposes you to risk for displaying even dead musician's readily recognizable lyrics on products -- such as such as Bob Marley and "No woman, no cry" or Frank Sinatra and "I did it my way."
Speak with your own Washington-licensed intellectual property attorney. This area of law is still developing. Good luck.
The above response is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.
If you can you may be able to purchase a license to use the property on your products , but you will have to contract with each artist who holds the rights to the property.
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You received some great responses.
Using quotes will generally be permitted. This is largely because using what amounts to a very small portion of a much larger body of work will not be considered copyright infringement and short phrases or small groups of words are not protected under copyright law. Now in some cases, especially where the work from which the quote was pulled is widely recognizable (the money part; like the chorus of a very famous song for example) it may be a copyright infringement issue or as noted even a publicity and privacy rights issue.
That said, some phrases are being employed as trademarks (slogans or taglines) and you need to be careful that whatever you use will not be considered infringing. In most cases, this will probably be obvious but certainly not in all.
Further, using the names and likenesses of authors can easily become a publicity and privacy rights issue, especially if it seems that you are playing off of their celebrity and name recognition.
You have a lot of latitude here, but you just need to make sure you get the proper guidance. I suggest that you consult with a lawyer in private and discuss your objectives in more detail. You can start by calling around to several for a free phone consultation, get some insights then pick the best fit to work with and know you are free to work with counsel located anywhere so you have a number of options you can explore.
DISCLAIMER: this is not intended to be specific legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. No attorney-client relationship is formed with the law firm of Natoli-Lapin, LLC on the basis of this posting.
I agree with Mr. Ballard. His response is especially compelling because you're located in Washington, which has enacted the Washington Personality Rights Act specifically to allow descendants of deceased celebrities to exploit post-mortem publicity rights, regardless of where the celebrity was domiciled at the time of his or her death, which is just about the most extensive post-mortem publicity right in the nation. So, if you're thinking about using lyrics by Hendrix, Heart or Cobain (or evenly personal Washington fave, the Sonics), you should be prepared for a false endorsement/unfair competition claim. If you have invested 2 years of your life in the business, you should ensure your business is operating legally by consulting with an attorney familiar with the very specific IP laws in Washington, including the WPRA.
This response neither constitutes legal advice nor establishes an attorney-client relationship. Inquirers must seek the advice of their own legal counsel prior to to undertaking any course of action related to his or her inquiry.