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There has been a lot of buzz about copyright Infringements on the web lately. Mostly is a small artists that are getting copied by big companies.

And in all of those cases, I think it's very clear to distinguish right from wrong. Inspiration and copy are two very different things, for most people the line is not very visible and that's when trouble can knock on the door.

The whole inspiration v/s copy issue is a huge one, but it's not what I want to share with all of you today (that issue itself requires a separate post).

Because of this ongoing rips off that's I've seen online, I've had long conversations with Ken about “what would I do” if something like this happens to me, so I started researching Copyright Law and in my attempt to “protect” myself I found out that some of my work (the lettering I've done of someone else's quotes) could have been infringing Intellectual property/copyright/Right of Publicity laws.

I felt super ashamed and VERY sad that I was so uninformed.

As all of you know Etsy is full of artwork created from quotes, songs, and movies, so I never questioned the issue, because I saw how many people do it I assumed it wasn't wrong, but now that I've read and researched, I've realized that it's a lot more complicated than what I initially thought.

I started wondering about the issue when I started sketching for my HowJoyful calendar. Halfway through the calendar, I realized that some of the quotes I was planning to use had been copyrighted, so I could not use them.

The legal part of all this can be very confusing because each quote and author *might* have a different Copyright, Trademark or Right of Publicity.

So each one should be researched and “cleared” in order to be safe to use. And trust me I've tried to do this research myself and it has been crazy, so a Copyright Attorney is a right person anyone that want to do this should consult with.


During my research I came along this great article written by Bruce E. Burdick on the Use of Famous quotes and also AVVO‘s list of questions about the use of quotes as the base of your work, this was super helpful because the ones responding are real lawyers specialized on the subject, what I learned from reading many -many- questions and all their answers is that:

  • If you are selling a product using someone's quote, you are not just using the quote but also the likeness and name of the author, so it's not just an Intellectual Property issue, it's also a Right of publicity and many cases also Trademark.
  • Depending on the date some work could fall into the “Property of the people” category, like in the case of Mahatma Gandhi’s work (Read the article here)
  • To be safe when using someone else's work as your inspiration is best to contact an Intellectual property Lawyer and discuss the author, quote, reference and how you can request a license or identify who you should stay away from.
  • If you want to be safe, don't use other people's words and when creating your own, do a Google search and see if someone else is using them already, be especially careful to Trademark (misuse of trademark “slogans” or short phrases can also get you into big trouble)

So Quotes, just like a photographer's photos or the painting of an artist, are the intellectual property of the authors, each quote is different depending on the author, the year of publication and the source of the quote (movie, book, interview, etc).

Sometimes people think that because it's words and there is no tangible good, copyright doesn't work the same way, but it does. In many cases searching for the person or organization that holds the copyright and right of publicity of a quote/name can be super frustrating, but it would be even more frustrating to face a lawsuit for infringements to copyright, intellectual property, trademark or right of publicity, right?

In my personal case, I've removed every piece of artwork that was based on quotes and I've only re-add them once I've cleared the quote/saying. In the case of my #howjoyfulcalendar, I decided to use things that I've come up with instead of quotes to avoid any problems, and this process has been even more fun than working based on quotes.

So my recommendation to other artists that base their work on Quotes is to do the full homework, see who holds the copyright, ask for permission, or simply come up with your own wording for your art pieces (so much more rewarding!)

Below I've listed a few resources to help out with your own research, I really wanted to spread the word about this issue and if you could as well, it would be awesome!


  • Copyright Law of the United States: The online version, they have each chapter as plain text or PDF (that you can save to keep reading later)
  • Intellectual Property Section: Great site to find legal “and real” answers from IP Lawyers, they offer great guides to Trademark, Copyrights, Patents and they even have a legal dictionary to help you understand “legal terms” you can also find a Lawyer in your area to help you with your case.
  • Quote Investigator: A great blog that helps find out the real author of quotes to really know if they are “public domain” or what the author holds the intellectual property to them.
  • Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States: This is a document I found in the Cornell University Copyright Information Center, the site is to help with the legal aspects of the University, but in their resources page they have a lot of great information.

I hope this post can help other's so they can make informed business decisions because even if you are selling only on craft fairs and Etsy and consider yourself as “not even a business” – if you make a profit, you are a small business! – And as such people that have the copyright of those quotes can come after you, and none of us want that :)

Information is power =]

So research and learns from my own experience, now I know that I have to be more careful when picking up sayings and even If “I came up with it” chances are that someone else also did, so Google it anyways ;)

I hope you all have a wonderful day!



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Joy Kelley is a Chilean Designer & lettering Artist. Mom to 3 little boys. Crafter. Pattern lover. Color obsessed. Lemon pie dependent. And the hand behind the HowJoyful Studio & HowJoyful Shop. Read more about her & the blog here →

7 replies
  1. brooke @ claremont road
    brooke @ claremont road says:

    So glad you posted this, Joy! The easier it becomes for people to sell their own work online, the more misuse there is of copyrighted or protected works. Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean they should or that it’s okay for others to do it, too. It has really surprised me to see items with quotes, likenesses of real people or tv/movie characters, etc. sold in really big stores. I KNOW they don’t all have permission, yet retailers are still buying these items wholesale to sell to their customers. There is a lot of money being made on items that people should not be selling. In general there is a lot of ignorance on the issue. Thanks for bringing it to the attention of many!

  2. Carmen Galeano
    Carmen Galeano says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this information! Integrity is something that I think is being overlooked by small business owners just as much as the bigger ones… I will be sure to do my research before selling anything!

  3. Angel Y.
    Angel Y. says:

    This issue was the number one reason why I put a halt to some of my product planning for my new Etsy shop. I was creating prints with quotes but I realized, this was probably not the best idea. It’s important for creatives and business owners to know what they can and cannot use. Most people don’t think about quotes as being copyrighted material because they’re used so often in everything. Great post!

  4. Marilenn
    Marilenn says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this Joy! I’ve been thinking about artwork with quotes and didn’t realize there was so much legal stuff behind it! I will be more vigilant about doing research as well!

  5. TOS
    TOS says:

    Outstanding post! A lot of people mistakenly believe that if something is on the internet, it’s ok to use it.

  6. JenL
    JenL says:

    A woman of great talent AND character? I knew I liked you for a reason :D Wow! Nice work Joy!

  7. Dom
    Dom says:


    you have NO IDEA how perfect this post was for me. I’ve just finished a client job which was VERY heavily based on quotes.
    I, like you totally assumed (oops…) that because everyone else was doing it in their illustrations I thought I was safe to do the same.
    I’ve got some thinking to do…

    Thank you!!


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