How many words from a poem can be used as a title of a separate work of art before asking permission?

I understand that were a composer to create an orchestra piece inspired by a poem, but not using the text directly, that would not constitute a derivative work. (See this post here for why I believe that is the case.) Said composer would be free to share that his inspiration came from the poem without fear of infringing on the poet's rights.

But would the composer need to ask permission to give the piece a title that uses 6 or 7 words of the poem's text? For example, let's pretend that the poem was "I felt a funeral, in my brain." by Emily Dickinson. Could the composer call his creation "Then Space - began to toll" without infringing on Dickinson's rights as a poet? These 5 words are a small percentage of the poem but there are the actual text she created. (I know that Dickinson is public domain. I use her as an example because I don't dare post the actual poet's name until I am certain I'm not stepping on his rights. He is a well-known, living, and active poet in the US.)

I would love to use 7 words from his poem for my title. I'm hesitant to ask unless it's actually necessary, though. Due to his status, I'm sure I'd either be denied permission outright or told something like "yes, you may use these words as your title. Please send us $700."

So, is permission required for the 7 words I'd like to use?

1 Answer 1


No, Permission is not Required

Under US copyright law there is no limit, because titles and other short phrases are not protected by copyright at all

As official Copyright Office Circular 33: Works Not Protected by Copyright atates on page 2:

Names, Titles, Short Phrases

Words and short phrases, such as names, titles, ? and slogans, are uncopyrightable because they contain an insufficient amount of authorship. The Office will not register individual words or brief combinations of words, even if the word or short phrase is novel, distinctive, or lends itself to a play on words.

Examples of names, titles, or short phrases that do not contain a sufficient amount of creativity to support a claim in copyright include:

  • The name of an individual (including pseudonyms, pen names, or stage names)
  • The title or subtitle of a work, such as a book, a song, or a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work
  • The name of a business or organization
  • The name of a band or performing group
  • The name of a product or service
  • A domain name or URL
  • The name of a character
  • Catchwords or catchphrases
  • Mottos, slogans, or other short expressions

Even if the words were taken from the body of the work, rather than the title, there is no specific number of words or lines that is allowed or not allowed, or that makes a later work derivative. Instead one must consider whether the later works is substantially based on or derived from the earlier work. Reuse of a small number of works is quite unlikely to make a new work derivative. See What is considered a derivative work? and When is a summary a derivative work? for more details. Also even if the later work is found to be derivative, it may still be held to be a fair use of the original, which is a different test. That requires the full four-factor fair use test, for which see Is this copyright infringement? Is it fair use? What if I don't make any money off it? But in any case use of a small number of words is very unlikely to be actionable copyright infringement.

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