Copyright law for t-shirts & designs can be confusing. Let us break it down in a practical way.
We want to tell you it's okay to print whatever you desire. But the reality is that copyright law applies to all intellectual property, even what you want to put on a t-shirt.
Copyright law can be complex, which is why you've landed here. You know you're breaking the law when you're over the speed limit. But often, it's hard to track someone breaking copyright law, and much of the enforcement depends on the copyright owner's desire to pursue a case. This has made the law difficult to enforce, leading to much confusion over what is okay and what is not.
All laws are viewed on a case-by-case basis, and this is especially true for copyrights. Some people will get away with sketchy practices, but we recommend not to risk it, as it could cost you or your company a lot of money to fix something if you cut corners today.
Here are the basics of design copyright law and some pointers for designing the perfect (and legal) t-shirt.
A Brief History of Copyright Law
The US enacted its first copyright law in 1790. When we started defending intellectual property rights, the country was just 14 years old. The law was rewritten in 1976 and has been amended as recently as 2022. It's been growing over time into a colossal mass—370 pages.
The law was written to encourage creatives and researchers by defending the monetary value of their work. It doesn't always feel right when you must pay someone to use an image, but we can probably all understand the intent. Artists deserve to make money; they wouldn't make a dime if everything could be copied.
A Summary of Copyright Law
Most of those 370 pages don't discuss the law's primary content but amendments and exceptions (here's the link directly from the US Copyright Office if you want to get into the details). Below are the law's critical components if you're worried about your t-shirt.
In §102, the law is defined in its general form. Copyright protection covers all original works by an author. It even considers technological advances, including works "now known or later developed."
Things that can be copyrighted include:
- Literary works
- Musical works
- Dramatic works
- Choreographic works
- Graphic, pictorial, or sculptural works
- Film and audiovisual
- Sound recordings
- Architectural works
And although the law doesn't explicitly list memes, they are undoubtedly intellectual property. Do your research and determine who owns the meme you want to use or if it's okay. Keep reading for resources that will help you find real gold online.
The law clarifies that the law does not protect an "idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery" involved in creating a work. So, you can follow the same methodology as an artist. You can't steal their finished product.
For example, you can be an impressionist like Van Gogh but can't copy Starry Night. Although, you can copy that one because Starry Night now belongs to the public domain.
What's in the public domain?
In chapter 3 of Title 17 (the name of the copyright law), a copyright is given an apparent lifespan. Any work created on or after January 1, 1978, "endures for a term consisting of the author's life and 70 years after the author's death."
All works that pass that 70-year mark move into the public domain. An artist may also not keep up to date on their copyright, or they may intentionally allow their work to slip into the public domain.
You can do almost anything with it if it's in the public domain. Some things could be improved if you collect and compile a large amount of the artist's work. This has its copyright called a "collective work" copyright. Stanford offers some great insight if this is a question for you.
What is fair use?
In §107, exclusive rights are suspended in cases of fair use. In other words, there are some cases where you can use copyrighted work. Appropriate use of a copyrighted work "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright."
If you're commenting on or teaching about anything currently copyrighted, you don't need to worry too much about using or reproducing a small amount of the material. But if you need clarification on whether your actions are fair use, you should lean on caution.
The US Copyright Office does offer four questions to help guide you through their definition of fair use:
"The purpose and character of the use." This especially skews towards the benefit of non-profit and educational usage. But don't make the mistake of thinking this is the only factor involved.
"The nature of the copyrighted work." This isn't the most straightforward thing in the world, so the Copyright Office offers help here. This goes back to the original intent of the law. If you're damaging someone else's creativity or ability to profit from that creativity, it won't look good for you.
"The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work." Even a teacher may run into trouble if they're copying entire novels.
"The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work." If you're going to eat away profits for the artist, you must be careful. This is especially true because if the owner thinks they'll lose money and have the slightest case, they will take you to court.
If you're using your t-shirts for non-commercial use, you have a much better chance of fitting into the category of fair use. To get ahead of the question, however, company t-shirts are for commercial use. But if you and a couple of friends are big Star Wars fans, you should be okay making a small fan club if nobody's making any money.
A T-shirt Design Copyright Law Case Study
Let's talk about a few t-shirts and weigh in on their legality. You've got the law basics down now, but these particular cases might illuminate your question. Say you're a big fan of Stranger Things, and if you haven't seen it, you should check it out on Netflix. We'll explain a couple of t-shirts ranging from overt nods to Stranger Things to ripoffs.
Example #1: Blatant Infringement
We found one t-shirt that says Stranger Things, except they flipped Things upside down (even this isn't too creative since a critical plot point in the show involves an alternate reality called the Upside Down). They use the show's title as the only content on the shirt, even with the same font. This shirt has little that's new and certainly infringes on Netflix's copyright.
Example #2: It Could Go Either Way
We found another t-shirt that sketched the monster in Stranger Things walking through Joy Division's album artwork for Unknown Pleasures. This one's more challenging to land on. They're using concepts from other artists. But it does seem like a novel idea to blend the two.
Then again, neither graphic work belongs to the artist who drew it. Stanford discusses how transformative ideas will always help someone in court, and this seems like a transformative idea—or new idea. Looks like a toss-up. If you go with an idea like this, a court will make the final call.
Example #3: You're In The Clear
The last t-shirt we'll discuss is a shirt for the Hawkins AV Club, a club that the show's main characters are a part of. The designer created a cool graphic for the club that wasn't used in the show. Though this is a clear nod to the show, it's doubtful that Netflix owns a copyright for the fictional town of Hawkins, which makes this one pretty safe.
One problem is that all these shirts are on the same website. So some shirts that might have been okay alone will now be weighed alongside those that are blatant infringements. If Netflix did decide to prosecute, they probably wouldn't be looking at a t-shirt-by-t-shirt basis. They would probably send a more general cease and desist (they've done this before—check out the story here).
All this to say, Netflix won't be prosecuting anytime too soon. Netflix had a market value of $131.22 billion in 2022, and these t-shirts are not disrupting their market. Plus, the optics of a multibillion-dollar cracking down on every tiny case of potential copyright infringement aren't the best look from a PR perspective (ask Disney).
If you need a specific picture or celebrity's face on your t-shirt, you need to find out who has the right to the image and contact them before proceeding. Often, people will be friendlier than you think in these situations, but some people are trying to milk it for all it's worth, so just be ready for anything. And hold onto things loosely until you have the green light.
A growing community on the internet is tired of all the licensing and copyright issues, so they've built sites that help you navigate this area. The leader of this movement is the Creative Commons, who have registered different works to be readily accessible and searchable here.
There have been some new sites since the movement began, and if you want to use stock images without racking up substantial licensing fees, some of the best websites are Unsplash, Pexels, and Pikwizard.
Alright, that’s enough legal jargon for now…
The law seems straightforward when you first read it, but it gets foggy when you look at it on a case-by-case basis.
It's best to stay within bounds when you design a t-shirt. If you follow copyright laws, you must make something entirely new. This will be a win for you and the artist. In a couple of years, you'll be happy nobody else can steal what you came up with!
Happy hunting out there! With some work, I'm sure you'll find the perfect (and legal!) design for your custom tees.
Contact our fabulous printing pros if you're ready to move forward with your shirt or have any questions. They’ll happily walk you through ordering a comfy, stylish, legally designed t-shirt.
Originally Published 01/06/2020 | Updated 05/03/2023