A T-shirt business can be highly profitable. There has never been a better time to start your own t-shirt business. Why? In the past few years t-shirt sales have skyrocketed in the United State. Sales this year exceeded $500 million. But there’s one challenge no T-shirt printing company should ignore: Copyright infringement.

You can sell shirts without copyright if you take advantage of the countless creative possibilities available to you. Sell shirts using public domain artwork or create your own artwork to sell on shirts.

As an entrepreneur, the last thing you want is a lawsuit because you used someone else’s designs without understanding copyright law. In addition, copyright infringement lawsuits are expensive, stressful, and could take years to resolve.

If you want to own a successful t-shirt printing business, it’s critical to know how to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts.

So how do you know when it’s okay to use designs on t-shirts? Read on to learn more about copyright infringement and ways to avoid it.

Copyright law can be complex, even for something as simple as a t-shirt. Some people believe that changing original artwork a little will avoid copyright issues. There is no magic number in terms of modifying artwork created by someone else. The most important rule about copyright is that anytime you copy artwork, you risk copyright infringements.

Could I sell t-shirts with somebody else’s art on it?

You can sell t-shirts with somebody else’s art as long as you have a written agreement from the creator or owner of the artwork. Creative works are protected by copyright. If you are not the original author of the work, you need written permission (license) from the author to print it on t-shirts.

How to avoid copyright infringement with T-shirts?

You know that you’re breaking the law when you’re taking a t-shirt without paying for it. But frequently, it isn’t easy to track someone down who’s breaking copyright law. And the enforcement is dependent on the copyright owner’s desire to pursue a case. That’s one of the reasons copyright law is difficult to enforce. Perhaps that’s why there is so much confusion over what is ok and copyright infringement.

All laws will be viewed on a case-by-case basis, and this is especially true for copyrights. Some t-shirt printing businesses will get away with sketchy practices, but my recommendation is not to risk it, as it could cost you or your company a lot in legal fees.

That said, let’s look at the basics of t-shirt design copyright law and some tips for designing the perfect (and legal) t-shirt.

Are T-shirt designs copyrighted?

If you are not a trademark attorney, copyright law for t-shirts and designs can be confusing. Original artwork, even without artistic merit, is copyrightable. You must be the creator of the work. And your work must show some amount of creativity. For artwork to be copyrightable, it must be fixed in a tangible object such as a digital medium, paper, or canvas. An idea for artwork is not copyrightable.

What is T-Shirt design copyright infringement?

Intellectual property, copyright claims, copyright notices, and author’s rights —copyright law has specific rules and laws that might confuse you. However, the most important takeaway is that all original creative content enjoys copyright protection. Therefore, every time someone prints artwork on a t-shirt without the author’s permission qualifies as copyright infringement.

If you think it would be cute to print a new t-shirt with the image of a superhero character on it, it will count as copyright infringement of the owner’s intellectual property. Besides images and other visual artwork, copyrighted content includes:

  • Movies and TV shows
  • Music
  • Sculpture
  • Choreography
  • Literary works, including quotes
  • Plays and movie scripts
  • Architectural works
  • Digital content, including software, video games, and websites

Can I print any design I want on a T-shirt?

You cannot print any design on a t-shirt without permission from the owner. Copyright law applies to all intellectual property. However, you could print your own original artwork or works in the public domain.

Does my T-Shirt design infringe on copyright?

If you’re worried about printing t-shirts due to potential copyright infringement, you should consider the following issues:

You cannot print original works of art or design without written permission or a license. If you find art online, before you can print it on t-shirts, you need to get written authorization from the creator or owner of the artwork.

In some cases, people may get authorization from the wrong person. For example, let’s say you contact someone you think owns a particular artwork for permission to print it on your t-shirt, but the person isn’t the owner of the artwork; you still don’t have the right to use it. If you are a sole proprietor or own a very small t-shirt printing business, you can contact big corporations for a license to use their copyrighted content. Still, those licenses are usually unaffordable for small businesses.

Fair use and t-shirt printing

Fair use doesn’t allow you to print artwork on your t-shirt. What complicates fair use is that a statutory definition does not exist. Therefore, fair use is always for interpretation on a case-by-case basis. But one thing is crystal clear about fair use law: t-shit printing businesses cannot copy works. This makes it clear that fair use doesn’t apply to printed t-shirts made and sold in the United States.

It may be acceptable to use works of art if only a tiny section of it is printed on t-shirts after being transformed into something that cannot be easily recognized as the original artwork. But even in this case, it could be challenged in court.

Some companies may claim their t-shirt design is making fun of a movie, character, or other copyrighted content. Of course, you may argue that it is fair use, but don’t be surprised if your t-shirt business is slapped with a hefty lawsuit. And if you think a lawsuite is no big deal, no matter what anyone tells you, you can always lose a copyright infringement lawsuit.

The best approach is to use your own original design or content in the public domain.

Can I print an image on t-shirts without an authorization?

You can only print an image on a t-shirt without authorization if it is under public domain. Just because you find an image online doesn’t mean it is under public domain. Before you use any image in your t-shirt business, you have to make sure it is in the public domain or that you get written permission from the owner of the content.

Due to the limits on copyright duration, on January 1, 2021, copyrighted works produced before 1925 have entered the U.S. public domain. That means that t-shirt printing merchants have a “green light” to use public domain content.

Do I need a person’s permission to print their face on my t-shirts?

It’s generally not permissible to print a person’s face on your t-shirts without their permission.

How to get licensing rights for t-shirts?

Before you use any artwork for t-shirts, it’s advisable to check with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the U.S. Copyright Office before you start printing.

If you want to get licensing right to print content on t-shirts, follow these steps:

  • Search for a copyright or trademark – If you have designed a t-shirt that includes a copyrighted element like art, logo, name, or character, search for copyright or registered trademarks before using the content. The USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System is an excellent resource for t-shirt businesses.
  • Contact the owner for permission to use the content on t-shirts – For example, if you wanted to print an image of a painting on t-shirts, contact the artist or the owner. To use a business logo, contact the corporation or the owner of the logo.
  • Consider sublicensing for your t-shirt business – If the owner of the work has already given exclusive rights to another entity, you might be able to obtain a sublicense.
  • Pay to use copyrighted content on your t-shirts – Copyright owners can charge t-shirt printing businesses fees to use their content. Sometimes there is a flat fee to use copyrighted work. Other licensing agreements may require t-shirt printing companies to pay a percentage of the sale of their t-shirts.

Is it legal to use cartoon/sitcom/comic inspired original designs on T-shirts and sell them?

If you want to sell t-shirts, don’t use cartoon/sitcom/comic inspired images without written permission. All copyrighted works, including, cartoons, sitcoms, and comics are protected by laws.

Is it legal to use anime characters on t-shirts for selling online?

No, it’s not legal to use anime characters on t-shirts for selling online. You can only print anime characters on shirts for sale if you have written permission from the owner of the work.

Is there any copyright issue if I print a T-shirt with a superhero image on it?

It’s against the law to print a t-shirt with a superhero image on it without permission. If you own a t-shirt printing business, you cannot print a copyrighted superhero and sell them without written permission (license) from the owner.

How do I get a license from Marvel for my t-shirt printing business?

You can contact Marvel (Disney acquired Marvel in 2009) on their website to inquire about licensing their content for your t-shirt printing business. If they issue you a trademark license, you’ll be the licensee for a specific d product category, distribution channel, term on a non-exclusive basis. Don’t expect Disney to give you a non-exclusive license.

The licensing process is relatively simple, but it is time-consuming. It requires a business plan with revenue estimates for your t-shirt printing company. Expect a minimum guarantee and an additional royalty fee – reported quarterly- on sales.

Don’t sign any licensing agreement without consulting with an IP attorney. Before you sign, make sure you understand what you can and cannot do based on the licensing agreement.

Is it legal to print famous paintings on t-shirts and sell them?

If the paintings are public domain, it is legal to print them on t-shirts and sell them. For example, paintings by the old Renaissance masters are in the public domain. But, if the paintings are protected by copyright it isn’t legal to print them on shirts and sell them.

Is it possible for me to use common art for t-shirts without getting sued if I don’t know who the artist is?

It is possible to use, but not legal to use art for t-shirts. Because all artwork is automatically protected by copyright, you could get sued for printing it on t-shirts without permission.

How do I know which art is copyrighted and which is free to use for my t-shirt company?

You should assume that all art is copyrighted. The only exception would be artworks in the public domain.

Does the 30 percent rule of copyright infringement apply to T-shirt designs?

The 30 percent rule is false. If you change the artwork you print on t-shirts by 30 percent, you are still copying someone’s original work. Copyright law is to protect the creator of artwork, such as written content or other creative work. You can’t claim the work of others as your own, even if you somewhat modify it before printing it on t-Shirts.

Do I need to copyright my artwork?

You need to copyright your artwork because it is a great way to protect your intellectual property rights.

How to get copyright on a T-shirt design?

Copyright protects your t-shirt artwork. Registering your artwork protects your work of original authorship. You can register your artwork with the U.S. Copyright Office.

How much does it cost to copyright T-shirt artwork?

The minimum cost for copyrighting artwork is the filing fee. Below are the fees for copyright registration:

  • Electronic copyright registration:
    • Single author – $45
    • All other filings – $65
  • Paper filing – $125

Check the U.S. Copyright Office for the most up-to-date copyright filing fees.

How to copyright digital artwork?

The same laws apply to traditional and digital artwork. Therefore, to protect digital artwork, you should register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

The contents of this blog are for informational purposes only and may not be relied on as legal advice.