The Internet is full of quotes. Everybody is quoting everyone else. Where does copyright law come in? Does copyright protect quotes?
The Short Answer
Yes, quotes are protected under copyright law.
The Slightly Longer Answer
In the U.S., and in most other countries, a copyrightable work is the property of its author (creator) the moment it’s “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” This means that, as long as humans can perceive it, with or without the help of technology, the work is protected by copyright. So if the words have been written down, typed on a computer, recorded in an audio file, or otherwise “fixed,” copyright applies, immediately.
There’s no minimal amount of expression required for copyright protection. Contrary to what you may have heard or read somewhere online, there’s no set minimum number of words required for copyright protection to apply.
That doesn’t mean you can write one word down on a piece of paper and “own” that word under copyright law. There must be some unique expression embodied in the copyrightable work. A group of words that’s distinct enough to be quotable is likely to qualify.
And yes, this applies to jokes, poems, or any other collection of words. See my recent blog post Does Copyright Protect Jokes? for more details.
OK, So What Does This Mean?
In reality, it may not mean all that much. As I stated above, people quote each other all the time. It would be prohibitively expensive to legally enforce every instance of someone’s words being repeated online (or in print.)
The penalties for copyright infringement are high (they can include lost profits, attorneys fees, and statutory damages of up to $150,000 for each work infringed), but the likelihood of actually being sued for repeating someone else’s words as a quote are very low.
There are also some possible defenses to a claim of copyright infringement, such as Fair Use. However, fair use is very complicated and often misunderstood. Please see my slide presentation, What Is Fair Use?, for an intro to this topic. And remember, fair use is a defense, which means it only comes into play after you’ve been sued, and after you’ve already started paying significant legal fees to defend yourself.
One more important point: if you’re quoting someone, be sure to attribute the words to the original speaker. Don’t pass off someone else’s words as your own. That’s where you can really get in trouble.
Wrapping It Up
Don’t be afraid to repeat someone’s previous statement if you find it inspirational or if it supports a point you’re trying to make. Always be sure to indicate who originally said it (as long as that information is available.) Never pass off someone else’s words as your own. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the basics of copyright law. And, finally, be prepared to take the quote down if the original speaker (or someone representing their interests) asks you to do so.