How to Copyright T-Shirt Designs
Legal Disclaimer: It’s crucial to do your own
due diligence and consult qualified professionals when seeking
legal advice. Intellectual property law is constantly evolving
so to get professional and up-to-date advice, consult a
When creating designs for a t-shirt business many people take
into consideration how copyrights and trademarks will affect
their designs. Whether you’re worried about other people
stealing your designs or about infringing on the designs of
others, information surrounding intellectual property can be
confusing, overwhelming and intimidating. This article will
discuss the differences between copyrights and trademarks, how
your designs will be protected and how you can protect yourself
from possible infringement.
Let’s dive in to learn more about how to copyright t-shirt
What is Copyright?
Copyright is the right of a creator to control who can copy
their work whether by print, photograph, audio recording, or in
any other way. It’s actually a basic human right that’s
protected by the universal declaration of human rights.
Copyright exists to stimulate and encourage artists and
creators to produce original works. Without copyright, there
would be no convincing incentive to create outstanding works of
art or literature since it would be easy to copy other’s ideas
and receive full credit for it. The fundamental right to
copyright is very important for cultural development and growth
and due to this, most countries take copyright very seriously
and handle infringements through their court of law.
What Does Copyright Protect?
Copyright protects “works”. Works include but are not limited
to books, poems, songs, photography, software, designs, etc.
and are essentially any original creation that could be copied
A creator automatically has copyright to any work they create,
whether it’s published or not. They don’t have to legally
register their claim, although it is possible to do so and
advisable in some cases to have copyright legally recognized
and documented. In most cases, however, it’s not necessary to
legally register a copyright. Creators also don’t have to use
the copyright symbol to protect their work. In the past this
was a requirement but that requirement has since been revoked.
What Happens if You Steal Someone’s Copyrighted Work?
If you use copyrighted works without permission, you’re leaving
yourself open to legal prosecution. In most countries,
copyright owners can seek punitive damages for each instance of
unauthorized use. For example, this means that if you sell a
t-shirt with an unauthorized design to 5 people, the copyright
owner can sue you for 5 claims.
It’s never a good idea to steal someone else’s work, no matter
in what shape or form that may take. When producing designs for
your t-shirt business be very aware of what images or text
you’re placing on your t-shirts and be sure that it’s not a
protected design. It’s always better to be over-cautious when
dealing with copyrighted material, even if you’re just doing a
parody on a brand’s slogan, or a reimagined drawing of a logo
or character. It’s always best to err on the side of caution
when it comes to copyrighted legal matters and if you’re ever
unsure whether your design may infringe on copyrighted
material, consult a lawyer before you sell the design on a
While copyright is there to protect the artist, governments do
not want to commercialize every aspect of our culture. Culture
is ultimately the accumulation of the created artworks of a
society and it belongs to the people. This is why most
countries have what’s known as “public domain”. Works in the
public domain are free for anyone to use in any manner and they
can also be copied, sold and distributed in any way an
Without the public domain we would face cultural stagnation,
where nobody is allowed to perform a play or sing a song
without paying royalty fees to deceased artists or their
Which works are in the public domain?
Some works are entered into the public domain by their creators
– essentially, they are donated to the world for free. Some
government departments regularly release works into the public
domain which can be used freely by the people who live in that
country. For instance, many of the photographs from NASA are
public domain works (at least for US citizens).
That said, you should always make sure a particular work is in
the public domain before you reproduce it on your t-shirt
Some countries have complex copyright laws. For instance, in
the UK and British Commonwealth, there is the concept of “Crown
Copyright”. Some uses of Crown Copyright works are permitted,
and others are forbidden. The permitted uses can vary from
document to document.
Commercial works enter the public domain after a certain period
(which differs from country to country). The laws which
regulate the public domain are quite complex, so it pays to get
professional advice for any works published in the 20th century
or later. For example, the character Aladdin from the
children’s book 1001 Arabian Nights (published in the 18th
century) is in the public domain, however the 20th century
Disney version of Aladdin is not.
Some artists release their works under the Creative Commons
license. This license allows other people to use the work in
their own creations, as long as they follow the original user’s
It’s important to be aware that different versions of the
creative commons license grant different rights. For instance,
there’s a license that allows you to reproduce and sell the
original design as long as you do not alter it, but there are
also other licenses that allow you to do anything you want with
The creative commons license is not the same as the public
domain – the original creator still owns the copyright and they
can theoretically revoke the license at any point – although
that is quite rare.
When creating t-shirt designs, if you’re using any works by
other creatives, be aware of their license and any conditions
or instructions included with the license. You may only be able
to use certain works if you give credit to the original creator
or you may be able to use a work for personal use but not on
anything that’s going to be sold, such as a t-shirt. It’s
important to be aware of this ahead of time so you don’t create
a design with another creator’s work and infringe on the
conditions of the license.
What are Trademarks?
A trademark is similar in concept to copyright, but it
specifically protects a name, symbol, or image that represents
a product or company. This includes logos, brand names, book
and movie names, the names of songs, and even characters from
TV and film. Sometimes celebrities register their own name as a
Trademarks have to be recognizable – something people could
associate with the company or person who owns it.They also must
be registered, which is an expensive process. Also, to keep a
trademark, you have to ruthlessly enforce it. Trademarks have
been successfully revoked when companies have knowingly allowed
for them to be misused. For this reason, it’s very dangerous to
infringe on a trademark as the owner is essentially forced to
make a claim against you even if they wouldn’t otherwise be
What is Fair Use?
Fair use means that under some circumstances you can use
someone else’s intellectual property without putting yourself
at risk. It really depends on how you use it.
For instance, if you were reviewing a book you could include
short passages of the text as long as it was relevant to the
point you are trying to make in the review and you include the
appropriate citations. Even then, fair use laws limit how much
text you can reproduce.
Parody is another example of fair use. If you’re making a joke
about a brand or character, this is usually covered by fair
use. However, you should be very careful to ensure it’s obvious
that your work is a parody, otherwise the trademark or
copyright owner could accuse you of “passing off,” which means
pretending to be the brand to trick customers and create a
Another point to bear in mind is that defending your right to
fair use tends to wear thin when you are profiting from the
work, such as by selling t-shirts. In that case, a copyright or
trademark owner could make a case that you are profiting from
their work or recognizable symbol that isn’t yours to make
The Risks of Parody
Fair use exists to protect free speech but free speech does not
mean speech without consequences. If you create a parody item
that could seriously harm the reputation of the original
intellectual property owner, they could prosecute you for
Defamation is the act of damaging someone’s reputation through
slander or libel. In essence, if you’re putting someone else’s
reputation at risk and you can’t back up your claims with
evidence, you put yourself at risk to be pursued by legal
Protecting Your Copyright
So far we’ve examined the risks of using someone else’s
intellectual properties, but you shouldn’t forget that you’re
the owner of intellectual properties, too. If you put a lot of
work into your designs it can be extremely frustrating when
someone else uses your work.
The most important part of protecting the copyright of your
designs is knowing that your work is automatically copyright
protected from conception. Once you’ve created the work you own
the rights to it and you don’t have to register it legally to
have that copyright. Registering your works legally can give
you additional copyright protection, and may help you prove
your case if you ever have to stand up for your copyright
ownership in a court of law, however it can be costly to
copyright every t-shirt design you create or every other work
you make. Sometimes the best way to protect your copyright is
to just let your brand do the talking and let customers vote
with their wallets.
Registering Your Trademark
Registering a trademark is a time consuming and expensive
process, however, it’s usually a vital course of action if your
store becomes successful. Take note, legally registering
trademarks is really only necessary when your company has
become so successful that it’s recognizable by a large audience
of consumers, and it’s not usually necessary for small
Important Note: If you’re running your t-shirt
business with other people, you should use contracts to clarify
the ownership of any of the designs used for the business.
Eventually you may want to sell or leave the business and that
may affect how the designs are used for the business. With a
contract you could determine whether the business gets to keep
using the designs in your absence or it could mean that the
business has to pay you royalty fees to use the designs, but
ultimately it gives you proven ownership over your designs
which gives you the power to determine how they’re used.
Consult a lawyer to draw up these contracts for you.
Understanding intellectual property laws can be confusing and
intimidating, especially when you’re first starting out, so
essentially just remember that if you’ve created the design
completely you already own the rights to it without having to
legally register anything. If you didn’t create the design you
either don’t own it and therefore cannot use it at all without
legal repercussion, or you have to purchase a license in order
to use it. In every case, the best course of action is to make
sure you are using images or text for your t-shirt designs that
you’re completely sure you either own or have the right to use
as any legal repercussions can be costly and time consuming.