Updated 10/6/2021 to reflect changes effective January 1, 2021.
*DISCLAIMER: I am not an intellectual property lawyer (nor any other kind of lawyer) and this post should not be taken as legal advice or permission.*
I get asked a lot about the issue of using famous quotes on products, and this post is my attempt at shedding some light on this (very complicated) topic. I know this isn't a fun thing to hear, but in most cases, the answer to the question "Can I legally use X quote on my products?" is going to be no, with a few exceptions (which I'll get to in a minute).
According to US copyright law, the legal rights to a quote belong by default to its author (or speaker). Quotes are considered intellectual property, which is protected under the law. This means that if you're not a quote's original author and you want to SELL something with the quote on it, one of two things must be true:
1. You have the author's written permission to use their words on your work. If you can't get the author's permission for any reason: they won't give it to you, the quote's owner is a movie studio (yes, this rule also applies to movie and TV show quotes, and song lyrics), they don't answer your email, they're dead, they're super famous, they're in hiding, etc., then Condition 2 must be met in order to legally use the quote.
2. The quote is no longer "owned" by the author and it has passed into what's known as the public domain, meaning it can be freely used by anyone for any purpose. When a quote passes into the public domain, it's almost always because it's old enough that its copyright has expired. (It doesn't have anything to do with whether the author is dead or alive.) This is where it gets tricky. The following chart is from the University of California's website and illustrates how complicated it can be to determine whether something is in the public domain or not:
This chart makes my head hurt. If you break it down into its broadest and easiest rule to understand and remember, it is that works published before 1926 are in the public domain and are therefore legal to use. This is why there are 4 jillion products with old quotes like "Be the change you wish to see in the world" on them -- I mean, that's a great quote, don't get me wrong, but it's also legally cleared for commercial usage, since Gandhi said it in 1906. (Yes, I know a lot of people claim he never even said it in the first place, but that's not the point.)
As you can see, there are other works published after 1926 that would fall under some of the other categories in this chart and would therefore be in the public domain, but unless you're an intellectual property lawyer or have one at your disposal, it's pretty hard to figure out what applies where. This is why, in my work, I follow the pre-1926 rule. People ask me all the time why I don't sell products with more modern quotes on them: this is why!
It's also important to note that attributing a quote to its author does not make it legal to use the quote, which is something I've been asked. If you're not selling your work, you can almost always go ahead and use any quote on it you want, under what's known as the Fair Use Rule (more information about that here). (Again, I'm not a lawyer and this blog post is not a substitute for real legal advice.)
If you want to use a quote on your wedding invitations or put a quote over a picture of a sunset and post it on social media, that's fine. But when you start profiting from someone else's intellectual property, you need to comply with intellectual property law.
What happens if you don't comply? In some cases, nothing. It's up to the person you're quoting (or their estate if they're no longer alive, or the movie studio or company that owns the rights to the quote if it's from a movie or TV show, etc.) to go after people who are using their words on unauthorized products. This is why there are tons of Etsy shops selling stuff featuring Steve Jobs quotes, etc. -- Steve Jobs' estate generally has more important things to do than look for people on Etsy who are violating his copyright. However, the more work you sell, whether it's on Etsy or wholesale, the higher-profile you become, and the more likely it is that you'll get busted for breaking the law. If this happens, the first step will generally be a cease-and-desist letter from the quote owner's attorney, telling you that you are in violation of copyright law and instructing you to stop selling the offending products, but there's also the possibility of getting sued and having to pay hefty settlement and legal fees.
Here's the thing, though: It is really not cool to profit from someone else's intellectual property without their permission, even if you can technically get away with it. If you're an artist, you'd be pretty pissed if another artist put your hand-lettering on their work and sold it without your permission -- and with good reason! It's just a really unethical thing to do. And that, more than the fear of Steve Jobs' people coming after me, is why I don't do it. In fact, when I started to feel really boxed in creatively by being limited to using pre-1926 quotes, I started writing and selling my own stuff, which is what led to my card line and was the smartest thing I could have done!
For further reading and clarification on this topic, here are a couple of links that I have found helpful:
I hope you guys found this useful! If you have a question about the legality of a specific quote or a specific piece of IP law, please ask an IP lawyer, because I can't give you legal advice. I can, however, tell you where to get my favorite pie in Los Angeles. (Maple custard at The Pie Hole!)