October 25, 2021

How to Copyright T-Shirt Designs

When creating designs for a t-shirt business many people take into consideration how copyrights and trademarks will affect their designs. Whether you’re worried about other people stealing your designs or about infringing on the designs of others, information surrounding intellectual property can be confusing, overwhelming, and intimidating. This article will discuss the differences between copyrights and trademarks, how your designs will be protected, and how you can protect yourself from possible infringement.

Let’s dive in to learn more about how to copyright t-shirt designs.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is the right of a creator to control who can copy their work whether by print, photograph, audio recording, or in any other way. It’s actually a basic human right that’s protected by the universal declaration of human rights.

Copyright exists to stimulate and encourage artists and creators to produce original works. Without copyright, there would be no convincing incentive to create outstanding works of art or literature since it would be easy to copy others’ ideas and receive full credit for it. The fundamental right to copyright is very important for cultural development and growth and due to this, most countries take copyright very seriously and handle infringements through their court of law.

What Does Copyright Protect?

Copyright protects “works”. Works include but are not limited to books, poems, songs, photography, software, designs, etc., and are essentially any original creation that could be copied by others.

A creator automatically has the copyright to any work they create, whether it’s published or not. They don’t have to legally register their claim, although it is possible to do so and advisable in some cases to have copyright legally recognized and documented. In most cases, however, it’s not necessary to legally register a copyright. Creators also don’t have to use the copyright symbol to protect their work. In the past, this was a requirement but that requirement has since been revoked.

What Happens if You Steal Someone’s Copyrighted Work?

If you use copyrighted works without permission, you’re leaving yourself open to legal prosecution. In most countries, copyright owners can seek punitive damages for each instance of unauthorized use. For example, this means that if you sell a t-shirt with an unauthorized design to 5 people, the copyright owner can sue you for 5 claims.

It’s always never a good idea to steal someone else’s work, no matter in what shape or form that may take. When producing designs for your t-shirt business be very aware of what images or text you’re placing on your t-shirts and be sure that it’s not a protected design. It’s always better to be over-cautious when dealing with copyrighted material, even if you’re just doing a parody on a brand’s slogan, or a reimagined drawing of a logo or character. It’s always best to err on the side of caution when it comes to copyrighted legal matters and if you’re ever unsure whether your design may infringe on copyrighted material, consult a lawyer before you sell the design on a product.

Public Domain

While copyright is there to protect the artist, governments do not want to commercialize every aspect of our culture. Culture is ultimately the accumulation of the created artworks of a society and it belongs to the people. This is why most countries have what is known as “public domain”. Works in the public domain are free for anyone to use in any manner and they can also be copied, sold, and distributed in any way an individual wants.

Without the public domain, we would face cultural stagnation, where nobody is allowed to perform a play or sing a song without paying royalty fees to deceased artists or their descendants.

Which works are in the public domain?

Some works are entered into the public domain by their creators — essentially, they are donated to the world for free. Some government departments regularly release works into the public domain which can be used freely by the people who live in that country. For instance, many of the photographs from NASA are public domain works (at least for US citizens).

That said, you should always make sure a particular work is in the public domain before you reproduce it on your t-shirt designs.

Some countries have complex copyright laws. For instance, in the UK and British Commonwealth, there is the concept of “Crown Copyright”. Some uses of Crown Copyright works are permitted, and others are forbidden. The permitted uses can vary from document to document.

Commercial works enter the public domain after a certain period (which differs from country to country). The laws which regulate the public domain are quite complex, so it pays to get professional advice for any works published in the 20th century or later. For example, the character Aladdin from the children’s book 1001 Arabian Nights (published in the 18th century) is in the public domain, however, the 20th century Disney version of Aladdin is not.

Creative Commons

Some artists release their works under the Creative Commons license. This license allows other people to use the work in their own creations, as long as they follow the original user’s instructions.

It’s important to be aware that different versions of the creative commons license grant different rights. For instance, there’s a license that allows you to reproduce and sell the original design as long as you do not alter it, but there are also other licenses that allow you to do anything you want with the work.

The creative commons license is not the same as the public domain — the original creator still owns the copyright and they can theoretically revoke the license at any point—although that is quite rare.

When creating t-shirt designs, if you’re using any works by other creatives, be aware of their license and any conditions or instructions included with the license. You may only be able to use certain works if you give credit to the original creator or you may be able to use a work for personal use but not on anything that’s going to be sold, such as a t-shirt. It’s important to be aware of this ahead of time so you don’t create a design with another creator’s work and infringe on the conditions of the license.

What are Trademarks?

A trademark is similar in concept to copyright, but it specifically protects a name, symbol, or image that represents a product or company. This includes logos, brand names, book and movie names, the names of songs, and even characters from TV and film. Sometimes celebrities register their own name as a trademark.

Trademarks have to be recognizable — something people could associate with the company or person who owns it. They also must be registered, which is an expensive process. Also, to keep a trademark, you have to ruthlessly enforce it. Trademarks have been successfully revoked when companies have knowingly allowed them to be misused. For this reason, it’s very dangerous to infringe on a trademark as the owner is essentially forced to make a claim against you even if they wouldn’t otherwise be concerned.

What is Fair Use?

Fair use means that under some circumstances you can use someone else’s intellectual property without putting yourself at risk. It really depends on how you use it.

For instance, if you were reviewing a book you could include short passages of the text as long as it was relevant to the point you are trying to make in the review and you include the appropriate citations. Even then, fair use laws limit how much text you can reproduce.

Parody is another example of fair use. If you’re making a joke about a brand or character, this is usually covered by fair use. However, you should be very careful to ensure it’s obvious that your work is a parody, otherwise, the trademark or copyright owner could accuse you of “passing off,” which means pretending to be the brand to trick customers and create a false impression.

Another point to bear in mind is that defending your right to fair use tends to wear thin when you are profiting from the work, such as by selling t-shirts. In that case, a copyright or trademark owner could make a case that you are profiting from their work or a recognizable symbol that isn’t yours to earn a profit from.

The Risks of Parody

Fair use exists to protect free speech but free speech does not mean speech without consequences. If you create a parody item that could seriously harm the reputation of the original intellectual property owner, they could prosecute you for defamation.

Defamation is the act of damaging someone’s reputation through slander or libel. In essence, if you’re putting someone else’s reputation at risk and you can’t back up your claims with evidence, you put yourself at risk to be pursued by legal action.

Protecting Your Copyright

So far we’ve examined the risks of using someone else’s intellectual properties, but you shouldn’t forget that you’re the owner of intellectual properties, too. If you put a lot of work into your designs it can be extremely frustrating when someone else uses your work.

The most important part of protecting the copyright of your designs is knowing that your work is automatically copyright protected from conception. Once you’ve created the work you own the rights to it and you don’t have to register it legally to have that copyright. Registering your works legally can give you additional copyright protection, and may help you prove your case if you ever have to stand up for your copyright ownership in a court of law, however it can be costly to copyright every t-shirt design you create or every other work you make. Sometimes the best way to protect your copyright is to just let your brand do the talking and let customers vote with their wallets.

Registering Your Trademark

Registering a trademark is a time-consuming and expensive process, however, it’s usually a vital course of action if your store becomes successful. Take note, legally registering trademarks is really only necessary when your company has become so successful that it’s recognizable by a large audience of consumers, and it’s not usually necessary for small startups.

Important Note: If you’re running your t-shirt business with other people, you should use contracts to clarify the ownership of any of the designs used for the business. Eventually, you may want to sell or leave the business and that may affect how the designs are used for the business. With a contract, you could determine whether the business gets to keep using the designs in your absence or it could mean that the business has to pay you royalty fees to use the designs, but ultimately it gives you proven ownership over your designs which gives you the power to determine how they’re used. Consult a lawyer to draw up these contracts for you.


Understanding intellectual property laws can be confusing and intimidating, especially when you’re first starting out, so essentially just remember that if you’ve created the design completely you already own the rights to it without having to legally register anything. If you didn’t create the design you either don’t own it and therefore cannot use it at all without legal repercussion, or you have to purchase a license in order to use it. In every case, the best course of action is to make sure you are using images or text for your t-shirt designs that you’re completely sure you either own or have the right to use as any legal repercussions can be costly and time-consuming.

Legal Disclaimer: It’s crucial to do your own due diligence and consult qualified professionals when seeking legal advice. Intellectual property law is constantly evolving so to get professional and up-to-date advice, consult a qualified lawyer.
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