The Sticky Issue of T-Shirt Design and Copyright Law

Modern technology makes it fairly easy for just about anyone to start a T-shirt printing business. Plain T-shirt can be had for reasonable wholesale prices while printing is very affordable. Unfortunately, more than one new business owner has found themselves in trouble shortly after opening due to copyright violations.

Copyright law seems to be a stumbling block for a lot of T-shirt producers. It is probably because they do not understand copyright law as it applies to graphic images and slogans. Furthermore, far too many business owners mistakenly believe that copyright and trademark are the same thing. That leads to the false belief that they can use any images or slogans for which there is no trademark.

If you were to open a new T-shirt printing business yourself, the first thing you would want to do is get a copy of U.S. copyright law and read it. Consulting an attorney to learn more about your rights and responsibilities under the law wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

Protecting Creative Intellectual Property

The whole point of copyright law is to protect creative intellectual property. Such property needs to be protected against others who would seek to steal it, monetize it, or take credit for it. Normally, we think of copyright in terms of music, films, books, etc. But the law applies to virtually anything creative. That includes T-shirt designs.

Have you heard of the Plurawl brand? Plurawl is in New York City company and brand that makes streetwear for the LatinX community. Their LatinX T-shirts, hoodies, and hats are big sellers. Not only are all their designs original, but they are also protected by copyright law.

You could not legally re-create a Plurawl design for your own T-shirt or sweatshirt. If you tried, the company could come after you for copyright infringement. That is something you would want to avoid for obvious reasons.

How to Avoid Violations

You might think that copyright law would make it difficult to establish a successful apparel brand. Perhaps it is more difficult, but it certainly isn’t impossible. The people behind the Plurawl brand say the key is doing things right. Here is how they say new brands can avoid copyright violations:

  • Create original artwork and slogans
  • Do not borrow from existing work, even slightly
  • Do not try to imitate existing work in any way
  • If you want to use existing work, get written permission
  • If existing work requires licensing, pay for a license.

It goes without saying that T-shirt designers should not use established logos, trademarks, and other brand symbols owned by other companies. It is also not kosher to utilize any graphic images pertaining to bands, sports teams, television shows, films, etc.

The standard rule of thumb is this: if you did not create it, do not use it in your T-shirt designs. If everything you print is original, you will never have any problems with copyright law.

Getting Creative Help

You may want to start a T-shirt business but feel you lack creativity. Welcome to the club. There are plenty of entrepreneurs who are very good at running businesses but lousy at being creative. So what do they do? They hire creative help. There is nothing wrong with doing that.

If you ever have a mind to start your own T-shirt business, remember that what you do is covered by copyright law. T-shirt designs can be copyrighted. So can all sorts of graphic images and slogans. If you use someone else’s work, you could be in violation of copyright law. That could mean the end of your business before you even get started.

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