Saint Louis, MO asked in Copyright and Intellectual Property for Missouri

Q: Can I sell items using quotes from a public domain work, but taking the actual wording from a modern translation?

I am an artist wishing to sell posters with quotes from Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations". However, I would like to use the wording from a translation published in 2003. Is it legal for me to do this without compensating the publisher or translator?

1 Lawyer Answer
Will Blackton
Will Blackton
  • Intellectual Property Lawyer
  • Raleigh, NC

A: There are two issues here: (1) derivative work of something in the public domain, and (2) whether a short phrase or quote is even subject to copyright protection.

(1) If an original work enters the public domain, this does not cover derivative or subsequent works based on that original work, that may contain editorial additions. So, Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is in the public domain. But that does not mean that a photograph taken of the Mona Lisa is necessarily in the public domain, the photographer would hold the rights to that photograph.

(2) With respect to quotes, the law is more complicated. It is often considered fair use to quote someone (such as when writing an article about someone), and some quotes (e.g. short or common phrases) are not protected by copyright. However, this does not give you a blanket license to quote anybody and exploit the quote commercially for profit.

Copyright laws do disfavor protection for short phrases. The Copyright Office's circulars state that, “… slogans, and other short phrases or expressions cannot be copyrighted.” These rules are premised on two tenets of copyright law. First, copyright will not protect an idea. Phrases conveying an idea are typically expressed in a limited number of ways and, therefore, are not subject to copyright protection. Second, phrases are considered as common idioms of the English language and are therefore free to all.

However, the only way to completely avoid legal risk is to seek permission from the copyright holder / creator of the of the quote[s].

Justia Ask a Lawyer is a forum for consumers to get answers to basic legal questions. Any information sent through Justia Ask a Lawyer is not secure and is done so on a non-confidential basis only.

The use of this website to ask questions or receive answers does not create an attorney–client relationship between you and Justia, or between you and any attorney who receives your information or responds to your questions, nor is it intended to create such a relationship. Additionally, no responses on this forum constitute legal advice, which must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case. You should not act upon information provided in Justia Ask a Lawyer without seeking professional counsel from an attorney admitted or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction. Justia assumes no responsibility to any person who relies on information contained on or received through this site and disclaims all liability in respect to such information.

Justia cannot guarantee that the information on this website (including any legal information provided by an attorney through this service) is accurate, complete, or up-to-date. While we intend to make every attempt to keep the information on this site current, the owners of and contributors to this site make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to from this site.