Copyright Basics for T-Shirt Design
Selling custom t-shirts is a relatively simple business to undertake; US Logo provides virtually endless design tools, materials, and resources, so shirt retailers can produce almost anything they can imagine. It’s so easy, in fact, that some sellers get into legal trouble without realizing how important it is to educate themselves on copyright law.
You’ve probably heard of copyright law, but surprisingly few shop owners have a clear enough understanding of it to steer clear of problems. Some operate for years, “under the radar,” without even realizing that some of their designs could be grounds for litigation. So how do you stay safe?
Fortunately, we know a fair amount about this subject, and we thought it was time to get the word out, so all our customers can move forward with confidence in their design decisions.
How Did the Copyright Law Start?
Before we go there, let’s define “copyright.” Merriam-Webster calls it: “the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (such as a literary, musical, or artistic work).” In day-to-day language, a copyright gives anyone who creates a book, song, image, etc., the right to control how that creative work is used by others. The owner of the copyright is the only person allowed by law to use that creation freely. Anyone else has to pay the creator (or at least get permission) to use it.
In the custom shirt industry, this means you can’t just print any design on your product. If you offer other products besides apparel, the same thing applies. You are also not allowed to reproduce copyrighted written content. So: not only are you prohibited from reproducing images of Bugs Bunny, a copyrighted design; you also can’t use the phrase, “What’s Up, Doc?” a copyrighted phrase, in many contexts.
Some designs are a bit more fluid than Warner Bros. characters, in terms of copyright. If the dancing figure on Dave Matthews’ “Stand Up” album is a perfect element for a shirt you want to design, you can recreate the “feel” of the art, being careful not to stay too close to the original design. As long as your design is inspired by the original design and not a copy of it, you probably won’t run into copyright trouble.
How Old Is Copyright Law?
Copyright protection has been in place in the United States since 1790, when a basic version of the law was written. It’s been rewritten over the years, with the most recent edition, nearly 400 pages long, released in 2016
How Does Copyright Law Affect Research and Creativity?
The primary purpose of copyright law is to give creative people and researchers (whose written works can be copyrighted) a way to monetize—and thereby keeping doing—their work. It’s an important law that has shaped the kind of innovation America is known for. Although it can seem unfair to pay fees to the creator of an image or phrase, this is how artists stay in business, so they can keep producing creative work.
How Copyright Law Works
At 370 pages long, the copyright law covers a lot of ground, but most of the information consists of detailed explanations of specific exceptions and amendments. You can read it, if you want. However, the main points of the law are fairly easy to understand and comply with. Let’s look at the big picture.
Copyright protects any original work created by an author. (In copyright law, the term “author” describes all creators—artists, composers, etc.—not just writers.) As you look at the list of copyrightable creations below, you’ll also see that copyright law has kept up with technology over its 230-year history, as artists like audio producers and filmmakers have come onto the scene. It will no doubt continue to expand into new creative technologies as they emerge, and it even includes the language, “any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed.” Copyrightable creations currently include:
• Musical works
• Dramatic works
• Literary works
• Choreographic works
• Graphic, pictorial, or sculptural works
• Film and audiovisual works
• Sound recordings
• Architectural works
Even memes are considered intellectual property, so keep that in mind when you formulate your next, great, socially-relevant design idea. If you reproduce a meme, you will have to ask the author for permission; possibly even pay for the rights to us it.
Only finished, published works are covered by copyright law. It offers no protections for “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”
So you can massage another artist’s idea or way of thinking into your own creation, but you can’t copy their work. We’ll cover this in more detail below.
Copyright Law and Fair Use
The fair use provisions of the law open up a few loopholes for the use of copyrighted material. Fair use means that, although a copyrighted work cannot be reproduced without permission, you can create derivative works based on it. A derivative custom shirt design could fall under the categories of “criticism, commentary, or scholarship” based on the original work. For example, while you can’t produce t-shirts with Rick and Morty on them, you may be able to create a shirt that spins a copyrighted Rick and Morty phrase into a new context that’s relevant to current cultural or political events.
Does it feel like this leaves too much gray area concerning fair-use interpretation? The Copyright Office provides an additional framework of four guidelines that influence whether your derivation of someone else’s design falls under a fair use exemption:
1. The nature of the copyrighted work. This one doesn’t apply much to shirt design, but means that the contents of factual written works are more likely to be usable under fair use than purely creative works.
2. The amount used. Short version: it’s legally safer to copy a small element than a large element from an original design.
3. The effect of the use on the market. If your derivative work can potentially harm the original author’s ability to earn income from their creation, fair use exemption does not apply.
4. The purpose and character of the use. This refers primarily to two considerations: are you using it for commercial purposes? (yes, in the case of selling shirts), and does your derivative work transform the purpose or character of the original work? Commercial use is usually not allowed to fall under fair use, as is derivative work that does not introduce some now relevance to the original design.
Let’s unpack that “purpose and character” guideline a little further because, although you can’t sell shirts that violate fair use copyright law, it’s unlikely you’ll get into trouble for giving them away. So if your nonprofit client asks you to donate a dozen event staff shirts with pictures of Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale saying, “There’s no place like home,” it’s extremely unlikely that any litigation will be pursued. It’s unlikely that any Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (the image copyright owner) lawyers will be at your client’s event in the first place. As long as nobody’s making money—or taking money away from MGM—and especially if it’s for a good cause, it’s an arguable interpretation of fair use.
Still, there’s no guarantee that a copyright owner won’t sue you over a derivative work you’ve created. Even if you’re certain that your design is protected by fair use law, it’s expensive to be sued. When in doubt, it’s safest to steer clear of other people’s work.
T-shirt design copyright law
Still a little lost about what constitutes fair use? Let’s look at some specific examples. Staying with our Wizard of Oz theme, we’ll explore some design ideas that span the range of fair-use legality, from definite-no-no to probably-safe.
Your shirt design says “The Wizard of Oz,” with a picture of Dorothy and Toto gazing with wanderlust into the distance. You use the same font as the original movie poster, which also has a picture of Dorothy and Toto gazing with wanderlust into the distance. Yeah, that’s copyright infringement, big time. And big movie studios have boatloads of aggressive lawyers on staff, whose job it is to sue people who steal their stuff.
Your shirt design has an original, highly stylized drawing (created by you or your designer) of Dorothy and her little dog, too, being chased by zombies, and the caption reads, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas, anymore.”
First of all, this is original artwork, and that helps a little. Secondly, this is clearly derivative and transformative. It places Dorothy in a horror landscape made popular by more modern movies, delivering a social statement that transforms the original content. You might win the lawsuit on this one, assuming you have boatloads of aggressive lawyers on staff.
There’s a shirt available online that says, “I identify with Dorothy … I seem to attract men who are cowards, have no heart, and are in need of a brain.” This is an excellent example of fair-use creativity. It uses a font different than anything ever used in the movie’s promotional graphics. It has no art or photography from the movie. It makes a very derivative, somewhat philosophical statement that has nothing to do with the motion picture or its story, so you could safely say that the “amount used” from the original work is very small. Does it hurt MGM’s ability to make money from its Oz franchise? Unlikely. This kind of derivative thinking is where you should aim, if you plan to incorporate copyrighted concepts into your designs.
Other factors that affect fair use legality
If a copyright holder files a lawsuit against you, they may evaluate your entire inventory for overall compliance. If your “I identify with Dorothy” shirt is the only product with an MGM reference, you may not attract any legal attention. But if it’s on a web page of other MGM-based shirt designs, you’re probably going to need that boatload of aggressive lawyers. In some cases, they may simply send a cease and desist letter. This basically says, “Stop stealing our stuff or we’ll come down on you like a pile of bricks.”
Let’s Review: What is considered off-limits when creating t-shirt designs to resell?
Here are some more examples of definite-no-no content:
• Artwork, photographs, or logos of:
o sports teams
o schools, colleges and universities
o clubs and organizations
• YouTube videos
• Most images found online
• Company names, their logos, or other marketing or business content
• Characters from movies, games, books, comics, and television shows
• Celebrity exploitation, even when you create the artwork
Yes, copyright law introduces a lot of legal restrictions to what you can and cannot put on a shirt, but there’s still a lot of creative room to move.
What design can I legally print on a t-shirt?
Let’s get to the fun part now and talk about what you can do. The possibilities for shirt design are endless when you consider these options:
• The Internet has millions of royalty-free images online, some of which you pay a few dollars for, but many of which are free. The “Tools” option below Google’s search results bar allows you to filter images by “Usage Rights,” then you can select “labeled for reuse with modification.” You can use these any way you want.
• Public Domain images are those that have no copyright restrictions because of their age or source. You can reproduce a tintype print from the 19th century because copyrights from that period no longer apply. You can use NASA images because NASA is a publicly funded organization, and so all its content belongs to the public, which includes you and your shirt company.
• Your original designs are yours, and after you create them, you own the copyright. Hm, now this is starting to work in your favor. More to come on that.
How can I check to see if something is copyrighted online?
What if you find an excellent, t-shirt-worthy graphic online? How do you know if it’s protected by copyright?
Look for the Copyright © Sign
That little © symbol stands for “copyrighted.” Stop right there when you see this. Another huge red flag is a watermark. Look at any online photo from websites like iStock, Adobe Stock, and Shutterstock, and you’ll always see a logo imprint on the graphic identifying it as their property until you pay for it and receive the non-watermarked version of the graphic.
Do the Research
Unlike written content, images are difficult to search on the Copyright Office’s website, but it’s easy to search for copyrights on movies, books, etc., so it can still be a good research tool. For images not tied to a well known publication, artwork, or franchise, try Google’s reverse image search to track down an image’s source.
Notice the Obvious
Until you learn otherwise, always assume that an image you didn’t create is copyrighted by someone else. If you can contact the person who generated the content, ask them if it’s copyrighted. Even if it is, you may end up having a fruitful conversation.
Photo by Tim Savage from Pexels
Are quotations protected by copyright?
Quote shirts are fun, easy to produce, and they can sell well if you touch the right social nerve at the right time. As with visual content, it’s entirely fine to invent your own quotation for a shirt, or to quote a saying that’s commonly used by average people. It’s also okay to quote a phrase from a public speech or event, but trouble can start when you pull quotations from copyrighted pieces of work. Best to stay away from quotes and taglines out of famous movies, books, songs, and so forth.
Let’s break this down further into another set of “dos” and “don’ts” …
• Works from authors who died at least 70 years ago
• Everyday sayings
• Short phrases that don’t fully quote the phrase they reference
• Public domain images
• Royalty free images
• Culturally relevant parodies that change the words and meaning of the original phrase
• Your original creations
Do not print
• Quotes from living authors
• Words from authors who died less than 70 years ago
• Material marked with the copyright symbol ©
• Trademarked material
• Corporate taglines or content
How to copyright a design for t-shirts
Copyright registration is easy to do online. It costs a few bucks, but you can copyright multiple works in the same application, so it’s a very low fee if you do several designs at a time. Visit the copyright registration page for full instructions.
Still have questions? the Copyright Office’s Circular 1C is about 10 pages long and covers most other topics.
Effective Date of Registration
When you register a copyright, you’ll be required to provide copies of all the copyrighted images. Your copyright becomes effective as soon as the Copyright Office receives your images, completed registration form, and payment.
Still have questions? Visit www.copyright.gov or contact US Logo for more help.
How much does it cost to copyright a design?
Electronic registration costs $55 as of March 20, 2020, not a bad price to pay to keep your work from being appropriated by others.
If your shirt idea needs a famous face, book, or sports team for the concept to work, and you think it has big commercial potential, it is possible to obtain rights from most organizations and individuals. Some cost less than others, and many can be prohibitively expensive, demanding five-figure fees for any reproduction of their faces, materials, or whatever. Cost can also depend on the situation. Celebrities frequently give nonprofit organizations free use of their images. If you have a nonprofit client with a good cause that wants t-shirts featuring a famous athlete, it’s worth a phone call to the athlete’s agent. You might be surprised how willing they are to help.
The world’s largest repository of royalty free images of all kinds can be found at https://search.creativecommons.org/. This is a worldwide platform where artists share original material for general use. Creative Commons is an incredible resource, and it survives on donations, so if you like it, toss a few bucks their way, so it will still be there next time you need it.
Another excellent photo sharing site is https://unsplash.com/. This website has a huge library of amazing photography that rivals the quality of for-profit stock photo sites. But unlike Creative Commons, you won’t find any clip art or vector art here; just photos.
Copyright law can be a bit overwhelming at first glance, but it’s really just common sense. This article should keep you on safe ground, as long as you err on the side of caution. And remember, originality keeps you safe, and it keeps your creative muscles strong.
Talk to us
Copyright law is in place for good reasons; so that artists like you can protect their work. A clear understanding of the law will help you focus on creating new ideas, even when they’re derivative of existing cultural references. Give us a call at (316) 264-1321 with any questions you have. Our customer service representatives and graphic designers can help you get your design ideas to market with no concerns about copyright backlash.
Disclaimer: Even though we have a good grasp on copyright laws and principles of copyright laws, we are not lawyers