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1. What is copyright infringement?

How to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts: 2024 guide

Updated Jan 15 2024

Selling t-shirts can be a great way to make money online. But to protect your business, you need to know how to avoid copyright infringements with t-shirts. Copyright complaints can get your content removed from your ecommerce site or cost you steep financial penalties. You may end up effectively selling t-shirts to make money for someone else.

Fortunately, avoiding copyright infringement isn't hard when you know the rules. Here we'll share eight best practices to help your t-shirt printing business steer clear of copyright complaints. We'll also share four crucial rules you should follow if you don't want to get in trouble with copyright infringement. Note that the guidelines described here for t-shirt design also apply to selling other art products such as wall art, calendars, or mugs.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Copyright infringement occurs when a creative work owned by one party is used by another party without permission.

  • Consequences of copyright infringement can include the removal of content from websites and financial penalties.

  • You can avoid copyright infringement by creating or commissioning original images, using images that aren't protected by copyright, or paying for rights to use images.

  • To avoid copyright infringement complaints, never use unauthorized images that contain cartoon characters, celebrities, copyrighted quotes, or sports teams.

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use of creative work without the permission of its legal owner. Unauthorized usage can include uses such as reproducing a work, publicly displaying it, or creating a derivative work. It can include both commercial use and certain types of non-commercial use.

Types of works subject to copyright infringement protection can include artwork, books, music, plays, architecture, software, and other creative works. Protected artwork can include physical and digital images, drawings, paintings, graphics, photos, and other types of artwork. In this article, we'll be focusing on copyright infringement as it applies to artwork used on t-shirts.

What is a copyright?

A copyright is a type of intellectual property law that gives its owner the right to control certain types of reproduction, distribution, and usage of creative work. By default, a work's creator is its copyright holder. However, the creator can agree to grant other parties the right to restricted usage of their work. For instance, an artist may grant a t-shirt company the right to reproduce their art in return for a percentage on sales, known as a royalty fee. Only the owner can exercise this right.

To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must meet three criteria:

  • Originality: It must be original and not a copy of another work.

  • Creativity: It must reflect at least a minimum of creativity (for example, you could not copyright a simple drawing of a circle since anyone could draw this without any creativity).

  • Fixation: It must be fixed in a definite form, such as a drawing of an image.

Certain uses of creative works are not covered by copyright law because they are classified as fair use. Fair uses of copyrighted works include purposes such as criticism, research, or teaching.

Copyright laws do not protect ideas, names, titles, slogans, or methods of doing something. However, other types of intellectual property law (IP law), such as trademarks and patents, may apply to these areas.

The creator of a work automatically becomes the legal owner of the copyright to their work as soon as it is created. However, creators may register their copyright with the United States Copyright Office to gain additional legal protection. To file a copyright infringement lawsuit, creators must have a registered copyright.

Copyrights have a limited duration. In the U.S., copyrights for works created from 1978 on last 70 years after the lifetime of the owner. Creators who grant copyright usage to other parties generally do so for a limited time and under specific conditions.

What are the consequences of copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement on a creator's intellectual property rights can have serious legal consequences for perpetrators:

  • If the copyrighted work is displayed online, the copyright owner may file a complaint with the website's owner, domain name registrar, or host demanding that the work be removed. Many sites will comply with such demands automatically to avoid liability. This means if someone files a copyright complaint against your t-shirt company's website, your content may be removed, or your site itself may be shut down.

  • If a copyright claim goes to court, the court may issue an injunction preventing further infringement. Again, this can result in your content or site being removed.

  • The court may order the seizure of any copyrighted works. If you have t-shirts using copyrighted work, they may be seized.

  • The violator may be required to pay the copyright owner any revenue gained from using their work. In other words, if you make money from selling t-shirts with someone else's art, you may end up paying them for everything you made.

  • The violator may be required to pay additional statutory damages between $200 to $150,000 per work.

  • For cases of willful copyright infringement, criminal penalties may be assessed of up to $250,000 in fines, up to 5 years in prison, or both per violation.

  • Even when you win copyright infringement lawsuits, you have to pay expensive attorney fees during litigation.

In short, it doesn't pay to engage in copyright infringement. You risk losing much more than you earn by violating copyright rules.

How to avoid copyright with t-shirts: Eight best practices

Fortunately, it's easy to avoid copyright infringement if you know the rules to follow. Here are eight ways you can obtain art for your t-shirts without running into copyright violations:

  1. Create your own designs

  2. Hire a designer or photographer

  3. Alter existing designs

  4. Check for copyright protection

  5. Use public domain images

  6. Purchase a license

  7. Find royalty-free images

  8. Purchase stock images

Here's how to apply these guidelines:

1. Create your own designs

create designs

Creating your own designs is a foolproof way to avoid infringement. As the creator of your work, you automatically become the copyright holder, and you're entitled to register your work for additional protection. You can sketch your designs by hand or use software such as Canva or Gelato's Design Editor tool.

2. Hire a designer or photographer

You can become the copyright holder of a work of art by commissioning someone else to design or photograph it for you. When you pay someone else to create art for you, you become the legal creator and copyright owner. Essentially, the designer is transferring copyright ownership to you in exchange for their fee. This is known as a work-for-hire agreement. You can pay someone you know or hire a graphic designer through an online platform, freelancing website, graphic design agency, or photography agency. Any work-for-hire agreement with graphic designers or photographers should be recorded in writing for documentation.

3. Alter existing designs

existing designs

You or a designer you commission can create an original work of art by altering an existing design. Copyright law fair use exceptions make provisions for works that add something new to an existing work, with a different character or purpose, and without substituting for the original work.

For example, a photographer can take a painting and enhance the original image in ways that give it a different character, or a graphic designer could do the same with a photo. To qualify as transformative, a work cannot simply reproduce the original work of art. This would be considered derivative rather than transformative.

New technology has made transformative copyright law subject to change. If you're not sure whether your altered design is derivative or transformative, talk to an intellectual property attorney.

4. Check for copyright protection

copyright protection

If you see a work of art you want to use, but you're not sure if it's copyright-protected, you should check. There are several ways you can check if an image is copyrighted:

  • See if there is a copyright symbol, credit, or contact details accompanying the image

  • Look for a watermark identifying the copyright holder

  • Review the metadata for the image to see if it mentions a copyright holder

  • Do a reverse image search by copying the image's address and pasting it into Google Images or another search engine for images

  • Search copyright records on the website of the US Copyright Office

Always be sure to double-check online images and designs for copyright protection before using them. Depending on what you find, you may be able to use one of the options described below.

5. Use public domain images

Some works are not copyrighted because they are considered to belong to the public. Such works are known as public domain works. A work may be public domain because it does not qualify for copyright protection or because its copyright has expired. For example, in the U.S., all photos published over 95 years ago are in the public domain.

Public domain images can be a great source of free t-shirt designs. Some images on sites such as Wikipedia are clearly labeled as public domain works. However, note that some works may be public domain in one country but not another. If you're not sure whether a work is public domain, you should double-check that it isn't copyrighted.

6. Purchase a license

If an image is copyrighted, you may be able to purchase a license from the copyright holder granting legal permission to freely use their design without copyright infringement. Some artists will advertise that their works are available for licensing. Others will be open to licensing if you contact them.

7. Find royalty-free images

Some images are available for use under royalty-free licensing agreements from the original artists or third parties who have made arrangements with the original copyright owners. With a royalty-free license, you pay a one-time fee or subscription fee rather than paying royalties every time the image is used.

Some royalty-free licensing arrangements place a limit on how many times or how long an image may be used before additional fees become due. Royalty-free licenses also may restrict usage of images for resale items such as t-shirts. Be sure to review the language of any royalty-free licensing contracts to verify you understand the terms.

8. Purchase stock images

purchase stock images

Stock images are generic photos or images that can be licensed for use, usually from third parties who have made arrangements with the original copyright holders. Stock image licenses may be royalty-free, or they may be rights-managed, meaning you pay a fee for a single use of the image and must pay an additional fee for additional uses.

Some stock image arrangements grant exclusive licensing rights to a single user, while others allow multiple users to purchase licenses. Make sure you understand the language of any stock image agreement. You can purchase stock image licenses from sites such as Shutterstock, Vecteezy, Adobe Stock, Freepik, and Unsplash.

T-shirt copyright infringement: Four crucial don'ts

When using artwork for t-shirts, certain types of art run a high risk of copyright infringement and other intellectual property claims. Avoid using:

  1. Cartoon characters and comic-book characters

  2. Celebrities

  3. Famous quotes

  4. Sports teams

Here's why you need to steer clear of these types of art:

1. Cartoon characters and comic-book characters

Animation companies such as Disney and comic-book publishers such as Marvel and DC are highly protective of their intellectual property. If you start selling unlicensed t-shirts featuring Mickey Mouse or Spider-Man, it's only a matter of time before Disney files a complaint against you. Even if you're a small business, companies like Disney will go after you to set a precedent for claims against bigger companies. You can be found in violation of not only copyrights but also trademark laws.

The same applies to cartoon characters from TV shows or video games. Don't use these types of characters in your t-shirt designs unless the copyright owner has granted you written permission.

2. Celebrities

Celebrities receive trademark protection against unauthorized use of their name and likeness, including their image, voice, signature, and other identifying characteristics. Don't use a celebrity's image in your designs without express written permission from the celebrity or their authorized agent.

3. Famous quotes

Quotes become copyrighted when they are fixed in a tangible form, such as a book or audio file. Copyright protection applies to all such quotes that are not in the public domain. Some quotes also may be trademarked.

Generally, quotes enter the public domain after 95 years. However, in some cases, quotes older than this can still be subject to copyright or trademark. You can check by searching in the Trademark Electronic Search System. Don't use any copyrighted or trademarked quotes in your designs without written permission.

4. Sports teams

Sports teams and organizations own copyrights and trademarks for images using their logos, players, mascots, and other identifying characteristics. Don't use images from teams in organizations such as the NFL, MLB, or NBA without permission.

Create a t-shirt business free from legal consequences

Knowing how to avoid copyright infringement will keep you clear of complaints and lawsuits so you can focus on selling t-shirts. It's easy to avoid copyright complaints if you use original art, use images that aren't copyright-protected, or pay fees for the right to use images. Follow the best practices recommended in this article, and you should have no trouble with copyright infringement.

One easy way to avoid copyright infringement issues is to sell customized designs based on original images created by you or submitted by your customers. Gelato uses print on demand (POD) technology to let you sell customized t-shirts and other products based on your own designs or those uploaded by online customers. We print your designs on quality t-shirts produced locally in 32 countries to cut carbon emissions. Sign up for Gelato's POD t-shirt service and start selling t-shirts free from copyright concerns.


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