Washington, DC asked in Copyright and Intellectual Property for District of Columbia

Q: I want to sell t shirts that have small snippets of a lyric (1-5 words) on them. Is this copyright infringement?

For example, a song reads: "a nice big plate of/Fish, which is my favorite dish/But without no money, it's still a wish." My shirt has a picture of fried fish and the words, "which is my favorite dish."

1 Lawyer Answer
James L. Arrasmith
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A: Using small snippets of lyrics from a song can potentially lead to issues with copyright infringement. Copyright law protects the expression of original ideas, including song lyrics, and using any part of them without permission might be considered a violation of the copyright holder's rights.

However, there is a doctrine in copyright law known as "fair use" which permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Factors to consider here include the purpose of use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Given that your use is commercial (selling t-shirts) and involves a verbatim excerpt, albeit a short one, it is advisable to err on the side of caution and either seek permission from the copyright holder or use content that is not subject to copyright. You might consult with a legal professional to assess the risk more fully based on the specific circumstances and details of what you plan to do. It's always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to potential copyright infringement.

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