Can You Print Famous Quotes On T-Shirts?

Printing famous quotes on T-shirts may seem like a straightforward thing – after all, it is just words, and often old words, right? But, as much as it may be true, there is a lot more to printing quotes on a T-shirt.

Doing things the legal way may take a bit of research and at first, but it will save you a lot of headaches later. Read on to learn of different methods that can help you print quotes on T-shirts the right way, and what types of quotes you can print on t-shirts today.

Can You Print Famous Quotes On T-Shirts?

Yes, You can print famous quotes on T-shirts. But you must first make sure you do not infringe on copyrights or trademarks. Quotes may be printed on T-shirts if you have received permission to use it or if it is in the public domain. Quotations can also be printed under fair use; however, fair use is often misunderstood.

There are many quotes and works in the public domain. This is a great place to start searching if you want to print famous quotes on t-shirts.

Answering this question is incredibly difficult as it has to deal with (for the most part) copyrighted material. As defined by the Oxford dictionary, copyrights are “the exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.”

In short, intellectual property is owned by the originators. In the case of quotes, the copyright is owned by the speaker or author. Here is the catch, though, copyright can only be assigned if there is a written or recorded form of the intellectual property.

So a quote that was only spoken once by your friend (and not established in a fixed form, i.e., written or recorded) will not be protected under copyright. Famous quotes are quite different from the scenario just spoken about.

Famous quotes will be protected by copyright since the quote is attributed to a specific author/speaker and has been established in some fixed form. As stated in the definition earlier, copyrights are assigned to the owners for a set number of years until it reaches the public domain.

As soon as intellectual work is placed in the public domain, anyone can use it for any purpose—for instance, artistic, musical, or literary material, media works, etc. So how long does the owner own the copyright? Well, this is dependent on the format of the intellectual property, the region, and whether the copyright owner is alive or not.

If you would like to print a famous quote from a song lyric on a shirt, the years until the quote is in the public domain might differ considerably from a famous quote in a literary work.

To make things even more confusing, copyright material (in this instance, a quote) can be used under “fair use.” However, fair use is often misunderstood and can be used as a defense against a lawsuit.

By this point, though, you would have already gone through tremendous stress, racked up a sum of legal fees, and overall gained a constant headache from all the bureaucracy. So, it is crucial not to use quotes in a manner where someone may think they have grounds to bring a lawsuit against you. It just isn’t worth it.

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Photo by Justin Dean on Unsplash

A good rule of thumb: if the copyright owner is making money off of merchandise or other material (think Harry Potter), it is best to avoid quotes that have to do with that intellectual property as it is more than likely still under copyright.

If you are still unsure whether the quote you want to print on the T-shirt is in the public domain or usable by “fair use,” seek legal counsel.

Although I tried my best to explain whether you can print famous quotes on T-shirts, I am not a legal practitioner. Thus, all information described in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be used as legal advice or counsel.

To help you avoid copyright infringement (and possibly a nasty lawsuit), we have listed some things you can do to help you print famous quotes legally.

Determine If The Quote Is Copyrighted, Trademarked, or in Public Domain

Copyrighted Quotes

Copyrights lengths vary in the country and by format, so it is essential to identify if the quote is useable or not. To help you out, if you live in the United States, material published before Jan. 1, 1923, is in the public domain.

For material published after Jan. 1, 1923, you can search the catalog of copyright entries produced by the U.S. Copyright Office or the equivalent in your country.

Trademarked Quotes

It is possible to trademark words like famous quotes. To check the Trademark registry to make sure a quote is not trademarked you can to the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) and search here.

Public Domain

Quotes or words that have expired their copyright period and gone into the public domain are allowed. For example, many Presidential quotes are in the public domain. There are also many philosopher quotes and other old famous quotes that can be printed on t-shirts. To verify if a quote or set of words is in the public domain, refer to this step-by-step guide.

As mentioned before, the law can be an extremely complex topic; With all its nooks and crannies, loopholes, and complex words, it can sometimes be difficult for an average joe to understand.

So, if you are not 100% sure you can use the famous quote without any problems, it is highly advised to seek legal counsel. It may cost a bit of money, but it will be far less than a lawsuit.

Ask Permission To Use The Quote On T-Shirts

If the copyright owner is still alive, you can ask for permission to use his/her quote. Of course, this might be a long shot, especially if the copyright owner is raking in cash from their intellectual property.

However, if the copyright owner is not a “big shot,” you might just get permission. If you do get permission, make sure you specify exactly what you want to do with the quote and have the agreement in written form.

Think of Creative Ways to use Quote Variations on T-shirts

There are other ways to use parts of songs or quotes on a shirt without violating copyrights. Using words that are part of a song, without being the actual lyric, can be printed on shirts in your own creative way. This is a great way to create designs around some famous quotes or lyrics without actually infringing on a copyright or trademark.


Printing famous quotes on T-shirts can be a little trickier than expected. Quotes can only be used if there is permission to use them from the copyright owner or if they are in the public domain. You should seek legal counsel first if you are unsure whether you can use a quote.

Also, make sure you fully understand the terms of fair use before deciding to print quotes on T-shirts under fair use. If all options fail to print your favorite famous T-shirt quote, fire up your creative genes and print your own original works.