We all have amazing ideas for the next great custom t-shirt design but can we legally print that on a t-shirt? There’s no worse feeling than having your dream t-shirt design rejected because you’re using something that’s been copyrighted or trademarked. While everyone may want to use unauthorized material, it’s still illegal. Do you really want to get a cease-and-desist letter about your new best selling tee?
Lucky for you, we’re here to help! After this, you'll know where to start to create t-shirts that don't violate trademarks!
**Note: Each case is unique and given the complexity of the topic, this article does not constitute legal advice and is just a entry point into the world of copyrights and trademarks. We encourage you to consult with a lawyer if there is anything you’re unsure about!**
What is Copyright? What is a Trademark?
Copyright and Trademark law is a way to set standards for ownership over “intellectual property,” which in the custom apparel business is more or less literary and artistic works. This can range anywhere from songs, books, sayings, and paintings to pictures of celebrities, software, databases, and blueprints. By saying something is “copyrighted or trademarked,” we really mean the creator holds the rights to who and how their intellectual property can be used– especially when it comes to profits. Basically, putting your favorite singer’s album cover on a custom t-shirt is about equivalent to going to a movie and recording it to sell bootleg copies. If you want to use a design someone else created, you need the creator's express written consent to do so. And depending on what is in that design, you may also need permission from the subject of that design.
Unfortunately, we do not have Mr. Snoop Dogg’s permission to use his art, however we at UGP are licensed to print trademarked materials such as university logos, greek letters and so much more! This is because we are licensed with over 250 schools and Greek organizations!
And what is the difference between Copyright and Trademark? Copyrights and Trademarks protect distinct creations. Generally, copyrights protect creative or intellectual works, and trademarks apply to commercial names, phrases, and logos. Copyrights primarily protect the rights of people who create literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works (like history tests, and software code). Trademarks protect the use of a company's name and its product names, brand identity (like logos) and slogans. In fact, the two protections are so legally distinct they are managed by two different offices within the federal government. Trademarks fall under the auspices of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, while copyrights are granted by the U.S. Copyright Office.
What You likely CANNOT Print Without Permission
While there are many things that can be looked at on a case-by-case basis, there are certain designs that you likely cannot use without express permission.
- Logos: if you own your own business or have designed your own logo, that would be totally fine! However, you cannot print Gucci’s logo on a Gildan shirt.
- Pictures: if you have a picture of your dog, that’s perfectly fine! But you can’t print a copyrighted picture from National Geographic.
- Characters: if you draw your own caricature and want that printed on a t-shirt, great! If you want to put SpongeBob on a shirt, that’s not legal.
- Viral content: We apologize but you cannot put Kanye’s last viral tweet on a shirt. More on this below.
- Celebrities: If you’re a celebrity, by all means put your face on a shirt! When it comes to any other celebrity, you can’t print it.
- Anything Trademarked: This includes catchphrases so if you’re not Paris Hilton, you can’t get “That’s Hot” on a shirt.
Obviously this list is broad and it depends on the actual art. Logos that are not your own personal logos need permission. This can be any logos from books, games, sports teams, schools, universities, etc. Same thing goes for pictures. Characters from movies, books, comics, and TV shows are also protected. I know your design featuring Mickey Mouse is perfect for that next Disney trip but he’s strictly for the park shops!
The areas where copyright and trademark gets the most tricky are viral content and celebrities. Sure you can easily make both viral content and celebrities your own original content, but that doesn’t matter. If it isn’t fully your own content then there will likely be some issues. Celebrities cannot be exploited in any way so that photoshopped picture of you and Kim K. on a yacht cannot be made into a t-shirt (I’m sorry)!
If you need a good rule of thumb, always err on the side of caution. That means asking for permission to use images made by someone else in your t-shirt design. Even if an image or logo isn’t trademarked at the time you make the shirt, that doesn’t put you in the clear.
What You likely CAN Print
I know all we’ve talked about has been what you cannot print but there are also things you can likely print worry-free! Obviously, you can print any design that you personally have made (unless it contains artwork elements that are owned by someone else).
You can also likely print:
- Flags: if you want to print the American flag, we can do that! Flags are free for anyone to use, keep in mind this doesn’t include Barstool Sports’ ‘Saturdays are for the Boys’ flag.
- National Symbols: national symbols are symbols of any entity considered as a national community! These can be national animals, birds, currency, emblems, etc.
- The likenesses of political figures when social commentary is being made: social commentary is when you choose a present social issue that concerns you and create something about it.
- Coats of Arms: aka symbols that represent a specific family or person are also ok to print.
Lastly, you can explore designs and material under Public Domain, though we do reserve the right to review every design on a case by case basis. Under public domain, intellectual property rights have been waived, forfeited, or have expired. Yes, copyrights have a lifespan, it’s a long one but it’s still a lifespan! According to the United States copyright law, any work created on or after January 1, 1978 is copyrighted for the life of the person who created it plus 70 years after their death. Think of it this way, Taylor Swift’s music is still under copyright but Mozart’s isn’t! Public domain isn't just for deceased creators either, some creators willingly put their new work directly into public domain for anyone to use!
Other creators also opt to list their work under Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization whose mission is to grow the number of creative works available for others to use and share legally. It features tons of images and audio available to the public for free! Although it’s free, there are different Creative Commons licenses. These licenses are dependent on which image you want to use but what you can do with the art is specified! There are different places to find work licensed under Creative Commons such as Unsplash, Pexels, and more! In cases like this, we may ask for proof that you have purchased the correct creative commons license for use with your specific design elements.
To sum everything up, your best bet when it comes to copyrighted material is to either not use it or consult your sales representative! All of our sales representatives at Underground Printing are ready to assist you with any needs. They can also help you create a design completely unique to you! In some cases, there are ways you can use copyrighted and/or licensed material whether it’s through Fair Use or you get direct permission but it’s better to be safe than have legal fees. And remember, we do always reserve the right to decline designs based on a case by case basis.