3 Common Questions about T-Shirt Design & Copyright Law Answered

Tshirt copyright laws
Photo Credit: “8” by Mico Samardzija used under CC BY-NC 2.0

Summer is coming again and our thoughts inevitably turn to rounding up the usual suspects, a bunch of t-shirts, some cutoffs and a pair of sandals.

No more grabbing vintage tee collectables at the local resale store, this year is going to be different, this is the year you silk screen your own t-shirts.

How about a huge, green, Irish triskele, triple spiral, on a velvet black t-shirt or a banana yellow hibiscus printed over an ocean blue tee?

No question, there are millions of graphic possibilities but coming up with a creative vision that won’t step on someone else’s copyright for some reason invokes a measure of creative block.

No worries; get the screen printing inks ready.  We’ll take a look at the questions, sort out some answers and you’ll be cranking out t-shirts in no time.

1.  Can I print any design on a t-shirt legally?

There are two “bear-trap” words in this question and those are “any” and “legally.”

The answer to this very general question is wholly dependent on facts and circumstances left forever unstated.

There is no way to effectively answer without discerning surrounding facts such as what design, who was the original author or designer of the image, is the t-shirt product limited to personal use or will it be produced for general marketing purposes.

However, that said, we can respond with an overview of some general copyright principals that may apply in most t-shirt situations.

(a) Public Domain

Many symbols that an artist might like to reproduce on a t-shirt have fallen into the category of known as the “public domain.”

A typeface, or a set of letters and related symbols, is not protected under most copyright law.

Most common symbols, such as the Irish triskele I mentioned earlier, are also not protected by copyright law and have entered the public domain.

There are also countless symbols and graphic images that were once copyright protected but the copyright has been allowed to expire or been forfeited for some reason and these have entered the public domain.

Material determined to be within the public domain is free for the general public to use, copy and market in any way and on any terms.

But wait a minute, can’t an artist take a symbol or an image out of the public domain and bring it back to a copyrighted or copyrightable status?

Yes, all it takes is to use a public domain symbol or image in a new, completely original work and the new image, which includes the public domain symbol, is copyrightable. Shark, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.

The long and short of this is that if you plan to market those “Freddy’s Fabulous Falafel” t-shirts you need to do the research to make sure the typeface and symbols you want to use are either your own original designs or unencumbered residents of the public domain.

(b) Request Permission or Licensing

Copyrighting an original design for your t-shirts is the safest and easiest method of staying out of any sort of copyright quick mud should your tees suddenly become this summer’s Internet darling.

The T-Shirt Copyright Handbook
Confused about t-shirt copyright?  Get a FREE chapter from the T-Shirt Copyright Handbook by clicking the book cover above.

However, if graphic art is not your profession then using a copyrighted graphic image with a license, or permission from the original artist or author, is fairly simple to arrange.

Simply contact the original copyright owner and ask to use or license their work.

You may find they not only allow you to use their work but that permission is given at little or no cost.

In contrast, serious legal issues can be invoked when the graphic image you have chosen to use on your t-shirt is already in use by an individual or entity as a trademark or service mark, either registered or just used in commerce for a number of years in a particular region.

Obviously, if you do not plan to market the t-shirts and just plan to wear the one you printed to the beach then you need not worry about allegations of trademark dilution or copyright infringement.

However, if you do plan to market the t-shirts or have all your team members wearing it in a video that will be marketed, then again, you need to contact the registered owner of the mark and request their permission to use the mark.

Always get the permission terms in writing just in case minds change later on when your t-shirt team plays in the world series.

2) Can I make a t-shirt related to a movie or TV series? What’s allowed? What’s not?

A person that bought a copy of a movie, TV series or computer game would be allowed under the legal concept “fair use” to take a still from that copyrighted work and use it on a t-shirt to be worn by himself or a family member.

The trouble starts when everybody in the neighborhood wants one of those great white shark tees and making a few extra bucks starts to loom in the minds of the tee creator.

No, you may not use “fair use” copyright principals as legal protection when you effectively go into competition with the copyright owner by marketing the copyrighted image or images on your t-shirts.

Do this and you will get “the letter” inviting you to appear in a federal court in response to allegations of copyright infringement and civil damages.

Always play fair, if you have a great idea for a t-shirt that involves the use of an image from a copyrighted movie, TV show or computer game and you think the product would market well then contact the copyright owner, and ask to have, or buy, a limited permission to use the image on your t-shirts.

The company or artists may be very interested in working with you. In most instances the rightful copyright owner and the licensee both benefit from the co-operative marketing of fashionable t-shirts within the garment industry.

3) How can I capture pop culture themes in my t-shirt designs without violating someone else’s copyrights?

This question puts me in mind of that cool graphic entitled, “Rage the Flower Thrower by Banksy.” The “Banksy” image is used in all sorts of ways including stenciled on t-shirts because it captures a cultural theme that resonates strongly with many people.

First, and foremost, try to create your own unique image that brings a voice to your views on the local culture or on the world.

But if you are not a visual artist, and for example, you want to use “Rage the Flower Thrower” on your t-shirt(s) then the first step is to determine if the image is copyrighted, who the copyright owner is, and if the copyright remains in effect.

Banksy was an anonymous and notorious British graffiti artist. No copyright attached to his work because nobody knew his identity. Another similar scenario is where the original copyright owner has passed away and the estate failed to comply with copyright extension requirements.

In both situations the copyrighted or “copyrightable” material has entered the public domain. They have become images that may be used freely on any t-shirt project.

All in all there are many copyright facets to consider when designing a t-shirt especially when the project manager has a dream of ultimately marketing the shirts.

Check out this comprehensive resource to get additional information about t-shirt copyright.

And feel free to send me one of those black t-shirts with the triple green spiral on it.

The T-Shirt Copyright Handbook

About the Author: Christine Varad is the principal writer and editor for Varacolors Media. She earned her JD in law from New England Law and holds a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. As an artist and a lawyer she has a long standing interest in Intellectual Property law and promoting the rights and interests of writers and visual and performing artists.