With the popularity and use of the internet it has become increasingly easier to start your own company and sell custom printed products such as t-shirts. But with this convenience also comes many legal problems. It is easier than ever to search Google Images, Pinterest, or a popular t-shirt company and find images that we might want to for t-shirt designs. However, in many cases this is illegal and might be considered copyright and/or trademark infringement. In the United States, there are registrations that impact t-shirt designers include trademark and copyright that are issued by the federal government and protect two distinct types of intellectual property including copyright and trademark.
In its most general definition, 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. Work is automatically copyrighted when it is created; however, registering the copyright with the The U.S. Copyright Office is required if a business wants to sue over the use of the material by another party. Copyright tends to be more geared toward literary and artistic works and they protect the following:
A trademark is a recognizable word, sign, design or expression that identifies and distinguishes the source of goods of one party from those of others. Trademark tends to protect items that define a company brand. and they protect the following:
What does this mean for t-shirt designers? Using any artwork from the internet that you don’t own or didn’t make is ILLEGAL.
You will generally receive a cease and desist letter by email and/or registered mail by an attorney who represents the trademark owner. This letter will inform you that you have violated a trademark/copyright and will include a copy of the trademark and screenshots of the design that violate their trademark.
The cease and desist will request that you immediately cease and desist of all the infringing designs as well as immediately cease all plans for the production, marketing, or manufacturing.
The letter will usually request that within 10 days that the following details be provided or confirmed:
Providing the information above will not waive the trademark owners rights to take legal action against you. The information above provides the legal counsel and the trademark owner the information to make a decision of what to do next. Most trademark owners prefer to settle out of court. It is common that trademark owners request that you sign an agreement that states you acknowledge what you did, that the statements you made are accurate, and if you are caught lying or ever sell more products with the trademark that they will take legal action against you.
Along with the agreement, the trademark owner will often request you pay them the profits you made from selling their trademarked design and/or additional penalty fees. Even if you have only sold a few t-shirts with an infringing design the requested payment amount is frequently from $1000-$20,000. If you have potentially infringed on a trademark you have a choice to make. Your options are to pay the amount they request for damages, attempt to negotiate a different damages payment or take the chance the trademark owner will take you to court in their state which will cost you at minimum $10K to get started. The amount required to defend yourself can get very expensive and if you lose you, it is likely that you will need to pay the trademark owners legal fees plus whatever damages were assigned. There are lots of grey areas in trademark/copyright law and unfortunately it isn’t always about being right or wrong. If you don’t have the time, money or resources to fight a trademark/copyright accusation your best bet is to pay the requested damages amount to avoid having to go to court.
Trademark: In the U.S. search USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS)
Copyright: Visit the U.S. Copyright Office.
Consult an attorney: There are lots of attorneys who specializes in intellectual property if you need something specific reviewed but keep in mind it can be very expensive and many times the answers you will get won't be black and white. The answers will be something like "You might be okay", "There is always risk".[divider]
Oh and we aren't attorneys! So this is just information to help you on your journey of the legal issues around t-shirt design. GOT FEEDBACK? Leave it as a comment below.