How to use TV and Movie Quotes on Instagram (without infringing)

Written by Wesley Henderson

September 22, 2022

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With the pandemic coming to its end, people are flocking to movie theaters to watch films on the silver screen. “Top Gun: Maverick” made more than 1.4 billion dollars worldwide within five months, making it one of the top-grossing films in history and one of the most quotable films of the year. Often inspired by the movies or tv shows they are watching; many people may choose to take quotes and make them their captions on Instagram. However, with strict copyright laws, you may wonder, is using quotes from movies and tv shows legal? Read below for guidance on how to use movie quotes on Instagram.

There are a couple of hurdles you should consider before using tv and movie quotes on your Instagram account: Copyright and Trademarks.

What is Copyright?

Before answering the question of the legality of using movie and tv quotes on social media, it’s crucial to have a general understanding of copyright law. Copyright law provides legal protection for “original works of authorship” and can be traced back in the United States to the Copyright Act of 1790. Although times have significantly changed, the law still protects people and their creations. These creations can include literary works, art, music, or anything a person creates.

Copyright is immediately formed upon creation; however, creators can take extra steps to protect their works. This would require filing with the government and is often utilized by professionals, including those associated with the movie and tv industry, to safeguard titles, scripts, and screenplays.

So, for example, if Quentin Tarantino wrote a screenplay for his new Western movie, he would automatically own the screenplay because he wrote it, but he may want to protect his work further. He would do this by filing his script with the government. By filing his screenplay, he further protects his work by preventing others from using his work and claiming it as their own. Learn more on copyrights compared to trademarks.

Are TV and Movie quotes subject to Copyright?

To quote every attorney…it depends. While typically direct quotes are not available for copyright, lines from movies and tv shows may be copyrighted depending on the nature of the quote. For example, while a movie quote like “I’ll be back” is a famous line from Arnold Schwarzeneggar, it will likely not be afforded protection under copyright law because it is common language. If it were copyrighted, then any time a movie, tv show, or book mentions the phrase “I’ll be back,” they would be liable for copyright infringement.

However, the courts have allowed some quotes to be copyrighted. For example, in Universal Studios, In. v. Kamar Indus., Inc., the court determined the line “E.T. phone home!” could be copyrighted because people would “readily” recognize the quote from the movie. So, depending on the quote, and if it is readily identified as relating to a specific movie or tv show, the quote itself may be copyrightable.

But what if there is a quote from a movie that is copyrighted…is there any way you can still use it?

What is Fair Use?

There is a provision called fair use that allows people to legally use copyrighted material in certain situations without being subject to liability. There are four factors that the court will use to determine if a person’s use of a work is fair use:

1. The purpose and character of the use;

2. The nature of the copyrighted work;

3. The amount and substantiality of the work used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and,

4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The courts will consider all these factors when deciding whether the use of the copyrighted work is acceptable. Unfortunately, the Copyright Act offers little guidance about applying these factors. Since every situation is different, the court’s decision on what qualifies as fair use differs in each case.

What is a Trademark?

Another way a creator can protect their work is by creating a trademark. Trademarks are designed to preserve any brand names, logos, or quotes used in commerce. The Lanham Act was enacted in 1946 and not only protects owners from unauthorized use of their property but also creates a national registration system. This makes it very easy to see what has been trademarked and what has not. While trademarks can be used to protect some movie and tv show quotes, it is quite rare. However, when in doubt, it is always a good idea to check to see if a quote has been trademarked.

Can I use TV and Movie quotes on Instagram?

Again…it depends. First, it’s important to consider what you are trying to accomplish by posting on Instagram. If you are posting for commercial use, then generally stay away from movie and tv quotes as it may be considered copyright infringement. Copyright infringement carries a penalty of up to $150,000 for each work infringed upon, so it’s best to avoid this.

If you are posting on your personal account, you should be able to use tv and movie quotes on Instagram content you create. However, it is important always to check to see if a specific quote has been copyrighted or trademarked. You can quickly check to see if the owner has taken additional measures to copyright the specific quote by researching public records on the US government copyright website: https://www.copyright.gov/public-records/.

So, let’s say you are one of the millions who went to see Top Gun: Maverick this summer and decided to go as Rooster for Halloween this year. Since you put a lot of effort into your costume, you choose to document the moment by posting on Instagram and want to include a quote from the movie. Using a quote should be fine if you are posting on your personal account with a few hundred followers. However, if you are posting it on a commercial account, you should proceed cautiously.

1. If you are an influencer and using a quote just to garner likes, while it is important to check the public records, the use of the quote will likely fall under fair use.

2. If you are an influencer and using the quote to make money or a business using the quote to promote financial gain, then you should proceed with caution. You should check to see if the quote is copyrighted or trademarked just to protect you and your business. Taking simple precautionary steps can save you from any potential infringement case.

The Fat Jewish Instagram account that was stealing jokes was well covered. Perhaps he was really able to get away with it to an extent because he still ended up having success on his channel but today it seems the copyright holders have a much more watchful eye as well as the platforms (like Instagram and Twitter) have better systems for reporting. If someone else has stolen your content (or even account) on Instagram, follow this guide to report it.

Parting Wisdom on Using TV and Movies Quotes on Instagram

I always encourage people to think about their intent. If your intent is to create something original but using a popular quote to add depth to it, then I feel better about that than if you are trying to get people to click on or respond to your work because of the quote. If you are ever using someone else’s trademark or copyright to make money, you are definitely in dangerous territory. For example, confusing people to think you are Apple is very different than using the phrase “I’ll be back” to show that you will, well, be back later but this adds some flavor to it. Let’s say you put a movie quote on a shirt to sell it? That’s going to be textbook infringement because you’re infringing and there’s no exception there. Plus, the holder of the quoteYour purpose is to entertain, not to confuse or to use as a way to make a sale.

Another thought is that even if you are technically infringing the copyright holder may not particularly care if you are spreading awareness and putting their work in good light. Now, sometimes they will have to enforce trademarks and copyrights anyway just to keep their ownership of them.

If you get contacted about a copyright infringement, take it down immediately while you investigate.

Most real-life scenarios regarding copyrights and trademark infringement are nuanced so use a lawyer as needed. In the meantime, always act in good faith (i.e. don’t rip off, plagiarize, or copycat) and be an original. That’ll be a great start for you!

Wesley Henderson

Hi, I'm Wesley! A business attorney turned entrepreneur devoted to simplifying how you protect your business and your assets. Like you, I'm an business owner so I get it and I started Drafted Legal to help you put in place simple and sound legal strategies so you can focus on your business and not worry about getting lost in legal nuances.

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