T-Shirt Design Copyright Basics: 3 Facts Every Graphic Designer Should Know About T-Shirt Design

Photo Credit: 12a by Mico Samardzija used under CC BY-NC 2.0
Photo Credit: 12a by Mico Samardzija used under CC BY-NC 2.0

With the increased ability to share creative ideas and art, graphic designers everywhere are finding more lucrative opportunities to profit from their work.

T-shirt designing is a fashionable possibility but very little has been published to give guidance to the budding artists who are providing the designs that make today’s t-shirts so popular.

As the industry flourishes, copyright challenges and questions seem to grow almost as quickly.

Copyright ownership lines are often blurred and it’s a challenge to keep up with the laws and understand who owns what and who can do what to whom!  The maze of legal issues can be overwhelming and distract you from what’s really important – selling your work for profit.

Therefore, if you really want to monetize your graphic design work in the t-shirt world, you’ve got to know your legal rights and understand the copyright laws surrounding this industry. That way you can move forward knowing that your work is being distributed in a way that you’re comfortable with, without the stress of wondering if you’re losing money or control over your designs.

What is Copyright?

Before I go any further, let’s start with a basic definition of ‘copyright’ and what it means to t-shirt designers.

Copyright is the ownership over a piece of work or art and the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, commercially exploit, and otherwise profit from it.

So, for those of you designing art for t-shirts and other products, copyright generally refers to ownership and control over the art and designs you’re creating for third parties and their products.

The #1 Question T-Shirt Designers Ask Is . . . 

Over and over we hear, ‘When my work is printed on a t-shirt, who owns the copyrights?’

That’s the golden question.

Let’s review the three most basic facts every graphic designer should know about t-shirt design and see if we can get to that bottom of that question, once and for all.

COPYRIGHT FACT #1 – Copyright exists the moment the art is in ‘fixed’ form.

A common misunderstanding is that you have to register something in order for it to be legally copyrighted.

The truth is that as soon as a piece of art or other work is in ‘fixed’ form – meaning published on a tangible platform that is viewable by humans – then it’s copyright protected.

This means that the moment you draw a new character in your drawing pad, or save your next logo in Adobe Creative Suit, you officially own the work – copyrights and all.

It’s what you do with it now – and how you distribute it after the fact – that must be handled with care.

There are several options for selling and distributing your work, which we’ll cover in just a bit.

COPYRIGHT FACT #2 – Works ‘for Hire’ must be specified in writing.

Just because somebody hired you to design a specific piece doesn’t necessarily mean that they automatically own the finished product when it’s done.

In order to properly transfer ownership of a copyrighted work, you must specify in writing that you are creating a ‘work for hire.’

Let’s say that you are hired to create a logo and t-shirt design for a local 5k challenge celebrating its 5th anniversary.

The T-Shirt Copyright Handbook
Get the T-Shirt Copyright Handbook by clicking the book cover above.

The company hosting the run hires you to create the t-shirt, giving very specific instructions and guidelines and how the t-shirt should look and what they are expecting.

Because some of the creativity is out of your hands – and because the work order is so specific – the work should likely be done as a work for hire.

If stated in a properly written work agreement, this would mean that you would wave all ownership rights to the work and ownership would automatically transfer to the company upon submission of the final product.

Remember, though, that nothing is a ‘work for hire’ unless plainly stated in writing so take care to have the proper agreements in place BEFORE starting any work.

COPYRIGHT FACT #3 – ‘Fair Use’ will only take you so far.

Abused and mistreated, the concept of ‘fair use’ is often used as a poor excuse to ‘borrow’ artwork and designs without giving proper credit and payment to the owner. So, if your company makes t-shirts, you must be watchful of where you get your designs and for what purpose you are printing them on your shirts.

In general, ‘fair use’ covers cases in which an educational or non-profit institution briefly uses your related work in order to instruct, teach or otherwise endorse their nonprofitmaking message. Other fair uses include parodies or transformed work. We won’t go into these details, but understand that the boundaries are tight and courts will weigh several factors before determining that something is ‘fair use.’

The point is that ‘fair use’ is not an easy test to pass. Chances are, if you’re selling a t-shirt for profit, then the design that you ‘borrowed’ is not fair use – it’s copyright infringement – and you owe the true copyright owner an explanation and potentially profits from the unauthorized sale of their work.

Responsible Copyright Ownership

Thankfully, there are a number of viable options for sharing and profiting from your artwork and designs and they don’t involve you losing control over your work!

First things first, though; before you move forward with any working project, know if you’re a Work for Hire or an Independent Contractor. If you want to maintain ownership of your work, insist on an Independent Contractor relationship.

Once you understand your working title, it’s time to decide how you’re going to distribute your work and in what capacity it may be used.

Here are a few of the most reliable options for sharing your work:

  • Creative Commons licenses allow you to grant permission to use your work, automatically and systematically – making it easy for you share your work in a controlled and profitable environment.
  • Register your artwork or design and offer royalty free sales which would allow a buyer to pay a flat-fee for unlimited use of your work without royalty payments.

Kunvay helps graphic designers and buyers of t-shirt design artwork to transfer copyright ownership online easily in 3 simple steps.

If you have additional questions about t-shirt copyright, take a look at this comprehensive resource that can help you.

The T-Shirt Copyright Handbook

About the Author: Erica Gardner holds a graduate degree in Legal Studies from Kaplan University and served in the Army with the Military Police. She now has a passion for writing well-researched and informative copy for attorneys, criminal justice professionals and entrepreneurs everywhere, under her business name, Mission: Marketing.