I understand that a single letter, or even a word cannot be copyrighted, because they are too short to be a unique work. So how big does a work need to be to qualify?

  • In the US at least, "short phrases" such as book titles or advertising slogans are generally not protected, but verse as short as a quatrain or a limerick is. I doubt that there is a specific exact limit, and I don't know how Canadian law might be different. Nov 4, 2018 at 0:51
  • According to Crown Copyright - FAQ short phrases tend not to qualify. "short" is not defined in this document though, and it is not mentioned in the Copyright Act Nov 4, 2018 at 1:19
  • According to Crown Copyright Request A work must be considered substantial. "substantial" is not defined in this document, or in the Copyright Act. Nov 4, 2018 at 1:26
  • @Unregistered Look at the Copyright Act. 5(1)(c)(i) does not use the word 'substantial', but says that it must be "in such a quantity as to satisfy the reasonable demands of the public, having regard to the nature of the work." So to decide what is enough will depend on the nature of the work. There is no simple quantitative definition like a minumum number of characters in a sentence, minimum number of words in a poem, minimum number of pixels in an image, and so on. That act also provides many definitions for things, including "work".
    – Brandin
    Nov 5, 2018 at 8:21

1 Answer 1


It must be an “original work of authorship”. For a court to consider it such it must be complex enough that it is likely to be “original”.

Length is not the sole criteria, compositional effort is relevant - short poetry is more likely to be “original” than short prose, however, even short prose can qualify if the originality is there. For example: “For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.” erroneously credited to Hemingway almost certainly qualifies.

  • If the phrase "For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn." is copyrighted and an original work, does that mean everyone who uses this phrase (i.e. in quotation) is violating copyright?
    – Brandin
    Nov 5, 2018 at 8:04
  • Unless it’s fair use/dealing, yes @Brandin
    – Dale M
    Nov 5, 2018 at 9:31
  • To expand on DaleM's comment, it is fair use if, amongst other things, it doesn't harm the market for the original work, is a short excerpt, is not reproduced for profit and/or it is used in an scholarly context. The use above almost certainly qualifies, especially as this really does seem to be a brief quote from a much larger work (see the link). Dec 4, 2018 at 11:32

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