Copyright and trademark basics
Disclaimer: Although we are knowledgeable on certain legal aspects of a t-shirt business, we are not lawyers. This information is intended to inform and keep you aware of general guidelines. If you have any additional questions, we recommend doing additional research on your specific concerns, or consulting a lawyer for more information.
When you start designing for your t-shirt business, you'll undoubtedly come across confusing legal issues. "Can I use this picture for inspiration?" or "How about a quote found from the internet?"
Copyright and trademark infringement can lead to hefty fines, along with other penalties. Before you design and start marketing a t-shirt, here are 4 things you need to know about copyright and trademark guidelines as they relate to t-shirts.
- The best practice is to create an original design.
The best way to avoid copyright and trademarks is to create an original design. If you come up with a design that’s truly your own, and you haven’t based it off of anything else or made it look similar to an existing design, you can feel pretty comfortable that you’re not violating anyone’s trademark or copyright. It cabe harder to come up with something that’s unique to you, especially with so many designs already on the market, but it’s still certainly possible to create a unique design to sell on your t-shirts. When you do that, you greatly lower your risk of having someone try to get you into trouble for a copyright or trademark violation.
- Copyright and trademark are not the same things.
Many people use the terms "copyright" and "trademark" interchangeably, but the terms aren’t identical. In short, trademarks are for terms, symbols, and names. A copyright is used for original creative works, like movies, books, paintings, songs, web content, and choreography. If you’re putting a company’s name on a t-shirt without permission, you’re violating their trademark. Song lyrics? That’s a copyright violation. For more information about copyright and trademark, visit the United States Copyright Office and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
- Know the rules when designing t-shirts.
You can use flags, national symbols, the likenesses of political figures, and coats of arms wherever you like. These aren’t protected by copyright or trademark, and you won’t face a lawuit over putting them on a shirt. If there’s a famous picture of those things, though, don’t use the picture. While the images in the picture might be fair to use, the photograph itself is going to be protected. Also, don’t use famous, recognizable characters on your shirts. Those are all protected, and you’ll likely face legal action.
There’s one exception, though. “Fair Use” allows for parodies, so if you’re making parody t-shirts, you can generally get away with using famous characters that others can recognize. Just make sure it’s clear what you’re doing, and avoid being too offensive. The parody opportunity isn’t just for people and characters. It also extends to things like logos, so you’re free to use those in the same manner, as well. If you’re planning on using a picture you found on the internet or a famous quote, those can be okay in some cases. Before you use them, be sure to learn where they came from and how to credit them properly.
- Is ittrademark or copyright infringement? Knowing the facts can protect you.
That picture you found on the internet might make a great t-shirt, and the quote from your favorite actor may really speak to you. Still, using these things on a shirt can get you into trouble if you don’t do it the right way. Famous quotes, for example, are generally all right to use, as long as you attribute them properly. Put the quoted person’s name on the shirt in much smaller print, or add it to the product description on your website. The author could pursue you, but they aren’t likely to do so.
For internet pictures, there are some sites that offer photos free for commercial use, as long as the owner of the photo gets credited. Most sites don’t offer that though, so if you want to use those photos, make sure you track down the true owner and get written permission to use the photo for commercial purposes. That can protect you from any legal problems you might otherwise face, and is the only safe way to use a photo in your t-shirt design. For more information on attribution and different licenses, check out Creative Commons. You can also use our list of 85 sites that offer free stock images.
Also consider the Right of Publicity, which states that people have the right to control the commercial use of their identity. If someone feels you’re using their identity commercially in a way they object to, you could be facing a lawsuit. With all the risks you take to use the work and likenesses of others, creating and using your own t-shirt designs is the best option.