Copyright Are Song Titles & Lyrics Protected by Copyright or Trademark Law?

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  1. Can popular song titles and music lyrics be used in the sale of merchandise, such as on a t-shirt or bumper sticker? This article will explore the legal rights associated with using movie titles, song titles and lyrics in connection with the sale of a product by someone other than the originator or copyright owner of a song.

    Song Titles, Song Lyrics and Copyright Law

    Let's take a quick look at understanding how copyright law works before making any decisions about its use on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. Copyright law provides exclusive protection to someone who creates an original work of authorship that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. What does that mean to people who don't understand legalese? It means that the thing you create must be:
    • Some type of creative expression (such as a painting or song) which is;
    • Sufficiently original and independently conceived by its creator that is;
    • In some permanently stored format so that it can be reproduced (such as a painting on canvas but not a design drawn in water which is only visible for a moment.)
    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? The few words in a song title may have been used many times before and should be able to be available for general use as a natural part of the English language. Copyright law in itself doesn't seem to prevent anyone from placing a song title on a bumper sticker or t-shirt.

    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. How common is it to hear someone utter the phrase "there's a lady whose sure all that glitters is gold and she's buying a stairway to heaven?" Probably not often. It is even less likely if the next sentence begins with "when she gets there she knows if the stores are all closed." This is why Led Zeppelin would have copyright protection for the song lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven" but not for the title. So if all we had to look at was copyright law, it would seem you might be able to use song titles or perhaps several words from song's lyrics on a bumper sticker or t-shirt. But the discussion is far from over as you'll see shortly.

    Song Titles and Trademark Law

    Trademark law is often confused for copyright law but it is a very different type of legal protection - it aims to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. When people hear the mark "Coca-Cola" they think of the famous cola flavored soda beverage manufactured by the company of the same name. Unlike copyright law, shorter phrases can be trademarked. Anyone can say that they have seen a couple of rough Dallas cowboys in the local bar but the law prevents anyone but Jerry Jones and his organization from using that phrase in connection with a professional football team. If some other entity wanted to create a professional football team and use the same name, it would be confusing to consumers in the general marketplace. Some large companies are known to take action, even if the use is marginal. The National Football League (NFL) is known for zealously policing its trademarks. T-shirt and apparel vendors know this well - it is a common problem for people trying to sell their own goods (or imitations) online or through e-Bay. The famous "Star Wars" mark of movie fame is own by Lucasfilm Ltd., who also police their marks vigilantly. Even if you think you are right, think about whether your use may be worth the time, money and effort you might need to defend yourself in a questionable case.

    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. Using that unique name would probably call into question anyone who would put out a series of t-shirts or bumper stickers who has not obtained authorization from the ultra-famous musician. "Yellow Submarine" is a famous song by the Beatles and is a registered trademark of Subafilms - but also appears to be used by an unrelated company as the name of a restaurant. Showtime called its show "Californication" to the objection of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who may lose their California lawsuit not only because they didn't trademark the term but also because it had been in use many years before the famous song. There is also the question as to whether simple use as a song title means it cannot be used as the name of a TV show (or merely as printed on a t-shirt.) Simon & Garfunkel's song "Kodachrome" was required to print recognition of Kodak's trademark for its film products on it's best selling album. The song "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead" was written by Warren Zevon and a movie of the same name was allowed to use the title provided the song was played during the movie credits. 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.

    Tips on Using Song Titles or Lyrics

    The following are a group of general observations made with regard to the use of song titles or lyrics on a product such as a t-shirt or bumper sticker. While it should be helpful as a general guide, you should be aware that you should not rely on this article by itself as legal advice for your specific situation. Every use of a song title or lyric is unique and has its own special circumstances - such as whether a copyright or trademark has been filed, the manner of use, the context of the use and more. The only way to be sure of the legality of your use of a song title or lyric would be to have a legal consultation with an experienced trademark lawyer.
    • Generic song titles and phrases are likely not able to be protected (such as "On the Road Again") - this is most likely the safest approach to using song titles and lyrics on a t-shirt or bumper sticker;
    • The more unique and unusual a phrase or song title, the more likely trademark law might apply (and that you might attract enough attention to be potentially sued or ordered to cease and desist by the entity that owns the rights to the song);
    • While copyright law may not apply to a song title but trademark and unfair competition law might apply;
    • Searching the US Patent and Trademark Office's Trademark Database is usually a good idea - but remember that there are also unfair competition laws which might apply;
    • If copyright protection applies, it will be in effect whether or not there is a copyright registration;
    • Just because other people and companies seem to be selling t-shirts, bumper stickers or other items successfully and without incident doesn't mean it's legal - for all you know, they either obtained permission, are in the process of being shut down or sued or might just not be large enough yet for the trademark owner to make the effort.
    • 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.
    Intellectual Property:
    Music Law

    Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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  1. Jessica Tancredi
    Thank you for this information! I am considering creating an educational product that includes lyrics to folk songs. Would it be legal for me to have specific lyrics to different versions of the song in my bundle that I am selling to others?
  2. Nigel Abbey
    Thanks for your great article.

    I have created a collection of totally original artworks inspired by The Beatles songs and titles. The artworks contain no direct images of persons or any Beatles memorabilia. The works are abstract impressions of the songs. Would it be legal to boldly title the works eg “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or is this too specific? Another work is based on ‘Paperback Writer’ which I guess is more generic in nature. Should I shorten or paraphrase the titles to avoid a challenge? I would value your opinion.

    On a trademark issue I have created my own logo for The Beatles to use on my works. It does not copy the serif typeface known to all but is a modern pastiche in sans serif typeface. The only clue is the drop ‘T’ character leg if you are familiar with The Beatles traditional logo. I’m not trying to pass it off as an official logo, just a nod to the original.


    Nigel Abbey
    1. Michael Wechsler
      Nigel - great question. If mere inspiration was protected, there would be no ability to create as we create based upon a product of our experiences. My general feeling on this issue can be expressed by the artist who named their work of art "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Anyone confused that the Beatles might have created this? Any loss of revenue to them? This is an interesting take - any right or wrong here? :)
      Michael Wechsler, May 12, 2022
  3. Anna Berg
    Hi Michael.

    Really great article, that I've read a couple of time now. Thank you.

    I'm currently investigating if I can use a two word phrase, that also is the name of a song title by an English band, as my book title (literary fiction). I have checked at, TMVie and other global databases, but this 2 word phrase is not trademarked anywhere, only as part of another title, which contains a 3rd word. No music publisher so far has been able to tell me if I can use the 2 word songtitle as my book title so far or not, but from all the research I've made, it seems that I should be able to use this two word phrase as my book title without any problems as it's it doesn't seem to be trademarked. It's not a huge, worldwide known song.
    Is there, in your opinion, somewhere I should doublecheck or something else I need to pay attention to? I greatly appreciate your advice, as the music industry has thrown me from one company to the next without anyone knowing about this issue. My gut feeling says that I'm good to use it.

    (I also want to use a lyric inside the book from that same band, but I know that this is only allowed if granted permission, so I'm trying to get that.)

    Many thanks for your view on this.

    All the best.
    1. Michael Wechsler
      Anna, I just noticed your older comment. It's impossible to say without seeing the words, context, etc. Generally speaking, unless it's a very strong trademark (Coca Cola), a two word phrase could be difficult to protect. There is no real ability to provide further insight other than general guidelines as trademark issues are detail specific.
      Michael Wechsler, Oct 12, 2023
  4. ronishwartz
    Thank you for this great article.

    I still have one important question with regards to it : What happens if I design a poster (for sale) which contains a list of famous titles (for example : "The greatest hits of the 1970s")

    The poster is actually a list of the 100 greatest hits of the 1970s (different songs, by different artists)

    Can that be considered an infringement of either copyright or trademark laws ?

    Thank you, Roni
    1. Morty
      I am not a lawyer but from my basic understanding I think this falls under "fair use" in copyright law. Perhaps you should research fair use.
      Morty, Nov 27, 2019
    2. Michael Wechsler
      Compilations of songs can be subject to copyright. An image of a poster is likely subject to copyright law. Fair use is an exception where a portion may be usable but it's often not in the context of exploiting a substantial portion of the copyrighted material for pure commercial gain as is contemplated here.
      Michael Wechsler, Jun 18, 2020