You see them everywhere — printed t-shirts with funny sayings, clever quotes, or company logos. You might even have one yourself. But did you know that you cannot print everything on a T-shirt? Copyright law determines what can and cannot be printed on a shirt. Let’s look at copyright law related to apparel printing and explore some of the most common items prohibited from being printed on shirts.
What is copyright law?
Copyright law is an intellectual property law that protects original works of authorship. Original works can include anything from literary works to musical compositions to paintings, sculptures, images, and digital content. Generally, copyright protection lasts for the author’s life plus 70 years for both published and unpublished works.
What does this mean for printed t-shirts?
If you want to print a copyrighted image on a t-shirt, you need to get permission in writing, a license, and pay the fee or royalty. If you don’t do this and someone finds out, you could be liable for copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), 1998.
So how can you avoid infringing on someone’s copyright when printing t-shirts?
You should use original artwork when designing your t-shirts. If you cannot create the artwork, you can hire someone to make it for you. This work will enjoy copyright protection itself.
Do not use any images or characters from books, shows, movies, video games, or comics. You should also not use logos, names, or trademarks of companies, bands, organizations, clubs, teams, etc., that you do not own without a license.
This includes using images from the Internet. Even if an image comes with a “free use” label, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is free to use. It can have certain restrictions for commercial use; therefore, always locate the copyright notice or contact the owner to know for sure. If in doubt, don’t use it!
You should also be careful with digital social media content such as viral videos and internet memes, celebrity pictures, artwork, etc. Use quotes only from works whose authors are still alive or whose 70 years have passed since the date of the author’s death.
Several websites offer free or royalty-free images. However, check for commercial use rules before printing them on t-shirts, as some may require attribution.
Not all images are copyrighted, though. Some photos may have moved to the public domain where the copyright has expired, or the owner has given up their rights. Once 70 years have passed from the date of the author’s death, the work moves into the public domain.
A copyright notice or records held at the copyright office will usually inform you if an image is in the public domain.
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