Everything you Need to Know about Trademarking your T-Shirt Designs
min read

Everything you Need to Know about Trademarking your T-Shirt Designs

Get all the insider info on how to protect your t-shirts with trademarking.

You’ve finally finished the painstaking process that is creating your custom shirt. From brainstorming the design, conceptualizing it on the garment of your choice, and realizing it with the help of our mock up artists, it’s done. 

But now what? Before you start setting up your online marketplace your design is now in need of some serious protection. This is where the t shirts trademark comes in. 

It’s surprising how common (and easy) it is for others to take advantage of your designs for profit on their end—which is the main reason why trademarking your t shirt design is the way to go. 

In this piece, we’ll dive into how to protect your t shirt design through registration, different trademark types, what to look out for, and how to file intent of use/where to apply.

It looks like quite a bit of work, but I promise that it’s simpler than it seems.

Orange shirt folded in half with "roam & run company" in black text on it

Trademark registration and drawing format

An important question to consider when embarking on your trademarking journey is: what makes a design registrable? 

You’ll want to make sure that your design is unique enough that it cannot be easily replicated—meaning, it can’t be confused with any other trademarked design (whether finished or pending).

A lack of uniqueness is one of the main sources of trademark rejection, as any risk of infringement on another design means the chances of approval are slim to zilch. So doing the research and ensuring that your design brings a fresh identity to the table is crucial in moving forward in both creation and sale.

Once the application itself seems possible without any roadblocks, you have to choose what type of concept drawing you will use. There are two drawing variations that qualify for a trademark application. 

The first and simpler of the two is the standard character drawing. It is typically used for basic number, letter, and word designs that end up as phrases. This is the go-to for logos that only utilize a word or two.

It provides you with the broadest protection and will enable you to change the logo in the future if need be. This form is also great for intent-to-use applications, which we go into more detail about later. 

If your design uses generic descriptors or no words at all then a special form drawing is the way to go. Special form contains any design elements that you’d want to include in any future iteration of the design.

It may be appropriate to apply for a word mark with standard drawing and a design mark with special form if the design contains both words and images.

Also note that drawings done in black and white will be protected in any color you would like to use in the future. 

white t-shirt with small black spartan helmet logo on chest

Choosing a category that’s right for you

While applying for a trademark, it’s also important to choose a category for your design. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) requires any trademark application to have a designated category for whatever product the design will be involved in.

Thankfully, the USPTO has a manual that contains all applicable product categories for use. It’s a good idea to check through the manual—even if you’re confident in what your category may be.

For example, “shirts” isn’t considered a single category—each type of shirt has its own category such as polos, v-necks, tank tops, etc.

Choose carefully and you’ll have no issues moving forward.

yellow shirt with blue and pink stylized shark and a skeleton riding a surfboard out of its mouth

Search for similar designs

As mentioned earlier, crossover with another existing/pending mark can be the biggest roadblock to trademark success—which is why some preliminary research is in order. Luckily, the USPTO saves the day again with their registered mark database.

It contains every trademark currently in effect so that individuals can check before sending an application through.

Although it may feel tedious, going through the database and checking each trademark that’s in a similar category to your current design is necessary for moving forward with the application.

The success of getting the trademark approved relies on there being no question that your design is wholly unique and doesn’t take any elements from any other design. This is the hard work done behind the scenes before any design makes its debut. 

white shirt with "take it all in" embroidered in pink text

Filing intent of use 

When applying for trademark protection, you also need to provide information on how you are going to use your design post approval. 

If you’re in the conception stage of the design process and haven’t used it commercially, you would have to file on the basis of intent of use—which means that you intend to sell the design and any products associated with it in the future but haven’t quite yet.

There will be more information and fees needed later to complete the registration, but getting the ball rolling now saves time in the long run, and protects your design in the meantime.

If you’re already selling shirts or other products with the design already, your basis for the application would be use in commerce.

While this saves both time and money, you need to already have an online marketplace set up, with your design fully completed and up for sale.

This isn’t realistic for everyone—and would mean that you were selling the design unprotected for a time, which some may not want to risk. 

White shirt with black spartan helmet logo

Where to apply

Now that you understand all of the background information on how to patent a shirt design, you may be wondering: where do I apply?

The USPTO has a Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS) where you’ll be guided through the application process. There is a nonrefundable application fee that is dependent on which class you are applying for, as well as other variables like intent of use.

The USPTO also has a breakdown of any additional fees you may encounter. Once that’s all set and the application is submitted, you can routinely check the status of your request on the application site.

The approval process may take up to a year (or sometimes even more)—but remember that even while your status is pending, your design can’t be copied by any other incoming applications.

Closing statements

Learning how to protect your t-shirt design is an extremely important step in creating your custom t-shirt. Knowing the ins and outs of the process will not only help you maintain ownership of your creative property, but enable you to trademark more shirts in the future with ease.

If you need any help understanding the printing process alongside what you’ve learned about trademarking, check out our custom t-shirt buyer’s guide, or simply reach out to one of our printing professionals

Keep in mind that all of the information provided in this piece is to help guide you in the right direction and to the proper resources—we are not equipped to provide any form of legal advice and recommend you seek out professionals when making any concrete decisions regarding trademarks.

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