Can song titles & lyrics be used on t-shirt designs?

Recently, we had a member ask about using song lyrics on shirts, after he ordered one of our custom t-shirt design packs. We weren’t entirely clear on the issue so did a bit of research on the subject.

We certainly aren’t lawyers and don’t intend for this to be taken as legal advice. Still, we found a few helpful articles that may be helpful to other print-on-demand sellers interesting in using lyrics.

From the post Are Song Titles & Lyrics Protected by Copyright or Trademark Law? at TheLaw.com:

Song titles generally don’t fall within the protection of copyright law since most are not sufficiently original or independently conceived by the artist. Are phrases like “born to run” or “on the road again” sufficiently original so as to deserve legal protection?

Song lyrics, like chapters in a book, consist of many words strung together by a person conveying a thought or series of thoughts. The more words the artist uses the less likely it is that someone else will independently use the exact same words to express the same thing.

Song titles have been trademarked and the subject of lawsuits. The “Material Girl” song by Madonna was a strong brand but a song title by itself was denied a trademark as it applied to clothing. Using that slogan on a t-shirt would seem to be permissible. On the other hand, “Ziggy Stardust” is a trademark owned by David Bowie.


What is the takeaway of all this? If you’re thinking about using a song title on a bumper sticker or t-shirt, you will probably want to consider whether trademark law might apply and, if so, whether a federal trademark was filed in the USPTO Trademark database.

Even if you might have the legal right to use song titles, be aware of the negative goodwill you might attract by people or fans who think you’re wrongfully exploiting their beloved band or artist.

There’s much more at the post. In general, our opinion is to stay away from all lyrics unless you don’t intend for them to be associated with the song/artist in anyway. In those cases, the phrases should be relatively commonplace.

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