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Everything You Need To Know About T-Shirt Copyright Law


So, you want to start a T-shirt business? That’s awesome, but I’d be lying if I said it would be easy. It won’t – that’s exactly what’ll make it so worthwhile.

Aside from the usual stuff you’ll need to understand in terms of creating a business, there’s the rather sticky issue of copyright. How do you ensure your designs are protected, and that a big business like Hot Topic won’t steal them? More importantly, how can you ensure you aren’t going to run afoul of someone else, and inadvertently violate their copyright?

Let’s talk about that.

How Does Copyright Work?

Copyright law is actually a lot less complicated than it seems. Basically, when you create an original work of art such as a graphic design on a shirt, you own the rights to that design. Should anyone else decide to use that design for their own purposes, they need to credit you in some way.

Now, there’s an important caveat here. While a work is automatically copyrighted at the time of creation. If you want to take legal action against someone who’s violated the copyright on one of your designs, you need to register it with the US Copyright Office. This requires you to fill out a form, pay a nominal fee, and send a copy of the copyrighted work to the office.

Information on fee structure can be found here. Note that from the time of filing, it may take up to 10 months for your application to be approved if you submit it online. During that period, your work, while still copyrighted, is unregistered – meaning legally defending it is much more difficult.

It’s also worth noting that in the US fashion design industry, copyright is still something of a hot-button issue. As evidenced in a recent court case between Star Athletica and Varsity Brands, two separate judges concluded that elements of clothing design such as cut, shape, and physical dimensions are not eligible for copyright protection. If you’re exclusively planning to create graphics, slogans, and logos for your shirts, you’re probably in the clear – but if you want to do some unique stuff with their cut and shape, just be aware that it may be difficult to protect those designs in court.

What’s The Difference Between Copyrights And Trademarks?

Trademarking is another way you can protect your intellectual property – but it applies exclusively to items directly related to your business, such as your name, logo, slogan, or marketing materials. Basically, anything that is central to how people associate with your company can be trademarked.

Essentially, if you’re founding a t-shirt design business, you’d trademark the name, logo, and slogan, then copyright the designs you produce.

How Can You Ensure Your Designs Are Original?

The truth is, if you look closely enough, nothing is truly original. Every work of art in history is derived from something else, influenced by a wide range of factors and elements. With that in mind – and especially now, in the era of the Internet – it might seem near-impossible to put together shirt designs that are distinctive enough.

It isn’t, though. First, I’d advise you to look for inspiration from works that are in the public domain. These are symbols, graphic images, and other artwork that may have been copyright protected at one point in their history, but have since lost that protection.

Stuff that’s fallen into the public domain is free for anyone to use, copy, and market in any way – so if you adapt your own original design from that stuff, you should be in the clear.

Second, if you plan to create a T-shirt related to a movie or series, contact the copyright holder for that series. “Fair use” doesn’t necessarily cover you here – it’s primarily related to famous figures, icons, and logos. As such, if you attempt to market and sell a shirt based on a popular show without legal protections, don’t be surprised when the showrunner’s lawyers send you a (not so) friendly letter.

Last but not least, do your homework. If you see an image or design you want to use on your shirt, search around to ensure that the design doesn’t legally belong to someone else. This handbook provides a great primer to help you understand a bit more about how it all works.

How Can You Protect Yourself From Copyright Theft?

Now that we’ve gone over the ins and outs of copyright law as it pertains to t-shirt design, let’s talk about what you can do to protect yourself from plagiarists. As I’ve already said, there’s a ton of people out there who will try to poach your designs. It’s almost upsettingly common, especially in the clothing industry.

Here’s what you need to do to keep yourself safe:


  • Always keep the original design documents and any other documentation that provides proof of ownership. That may include a blog post, some sketches in a sketchbook, or even a Facebook post. The important thing is that you have proof that the design is your idea.
  • Register every design you produce with the copyright office – ideally before you start selling it or make it public.
  • If you suspect your design has been stolen – and careful examination of the copycat does not assuage you of this suspicion – you have two options.
  • If they aren’t trying to sell your design, simply contact them and politely request they either give you attribution or remove the stolen design from their site.
  • If they’re trying to sell your designs, ignore your request, or respond to you with hostility, contact an attorney and draft up a cease and desist letter. Should they ignore that, the case will probably end up in court.
  • There’s one more alternative here – you can contact the owner or host of the site on which your stolen design is being plugged. If all else fails, you might get the plagiarist shut down.

Keep Your Brainchildren Safe

Copyright law doesn’t need to be confusing or intimidating. It’s designed to protect creatives – and that includes t-shirt designers. By forming an understanding of what it is and how it works, you can ensure you don’t get ripped off.

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