Some great artwork is inspired by the lyrical stylings of songs. Because music can become the soundtrack of our own lives, artwork created incorporating lyrics and titles of songs can create an instant connection with the viewer. We relate to the art because we relate to the music. But is it really legal to use song lyrics or titles in your art?
Song lyrics are the creative property of the musician that wrote them and are subject to copyright because they are sufficiently unique. Using song lyrics that are clearly identifiable as a known song in your artwork is a copyright infringement.
However, using a phrase or title from a song may not be copyright infringement. This will depend on the uniqueness of the phrase, and how likely it is that someone else would use the same string of words to express the same thought.
For example, let’s take a look at Aretha Franklin’s famous song about respect:
Using the lyric, “R – E – S – P – E – C – T, Find out what it means to me” is likely an infringement. These words linked together create a phrase that is unique to this well-known song.
From the same song, using the phrase, “A little respect” may not be an infringement. This is a common phrase in society, even used by Rodney Dangerfield.
But are using Lyrics and Titles a Trademark Infringement?
There is yet another wrinkle to consider. While most titles are sufficiently vague enough that using them would not be a copyright infringement, you should still consider whether it is a trademark infringement.
Trademark protection is different than copyright protection. A trademark must be filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in order to be valid. In the US, copyright protections exist whether or not they are filed.
In the case of Aretha’s song, she did not file for a trademark for the title of her song, “Respect.” However, when searching the USPTO here, we find that the term “Respect” has been trademarked by another company:
Even though a trademark exists, you can still use the word “Respect” in your artwork so long as it cannot be confused with this trademark. In this case, it would be worthwhile to look up this entity and have a look at their trademarked logo and make sure that you are not using the word in the same way that they are. It should be very clear that your art is in no way associated with their company or trademarked logo. So if your art is about oncology or clinical trials of radiotherapeutic products, the safest thing to do is steer clear of using the word “Respect” in your artwork.
Incorporating all of the lyrics of a song into your art is copyright infringement. However, using phrases or titles of a song may not be a copyright infringement if the words are not sufficiently unique. When using a short phrase or title, it is a good idea to check the US Trademark Office to make sure the way you are depicting the word(s) does not violate a Trademark.