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Asked and Answered: Can I use a famous movie line in my new screenplay?

Q:  I have watched hundreds of films and read as many screenplays.  The question I have is, are lines from movies protected by copywrite or are they considered in the public domain? The best example I have is whenever a character or story transports a character to somewhere foreign or bizarre the standard line is “We're not in Kansas anywhere” or some similar derivation. Likewise,  is there some law that says I can't use “Go ahead, make my day” in a screenplay that I write?

A:  Lines from movies are, in most cases, neither protected by copyright nor in the public domain.     Although technically, a line from a movie could be protected by copyright,  it's rare that it actually happens.    You see, in order to be protected by copyright, a work needs to be original. To be sufficiently original to warrant copyright protection, a line would have to be fairly lengthy, and involve a bit more than ordinary construction.  In fact, lines spoken by characters in films need to sound “real”, and real people don't speak in such carefully constructed phrases as to warrant copyright protection.

Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood
Image via Wikipedia

The film itself is almost without a doubt protected by copyright, but a subsequent use of a single line found within a film is likely to be held a de minimus use, and therefore not an infringement.

There may be other issues with using “Go ahead, make my day”, if the phrase has become a trademark.  Even then, if you're mocking or parodying the original, or just being ironic in the way the phrase is used, you're unlikely to encounter trouble from the makers of the original.

But, as with all free advice you get on the internet, you get what you pay for.  When in doubt, talk to an entertainment lawyer.

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.

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