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?
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].
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