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A Legal Guide to Copyright and
Trademark for T-Shirt Printing

In fashion and design, there is a fine line between being inspired by and downright imitating someone else's work. If you are tasked with designing a custom shirt for work, an event, or even personal use, you must be aware of copyright and trademark laws and how to avoid infringing them.

Famous Examples of Copyright and Trademark Infringement

Well-known brands and personalities are not exempt from committing copyright and trademark infringement on licensed t-shirt designs. Here are cases involving household names in the US.

1. Kendall and Kylie's controversial t-shirt line

In 2017, Kendall and Kylie Jenner launched One of One, a collection of vintage-style band shirts that immediately drew the ire of the music community. The shirts, sold for $125 apiece, featured pictures of the reality TV stars superimposed on images of Ozzy Osbourne, Tupac Shakur, and Notorious B.I.G., and album covers of notable bands such as Pink Floyd and Metallica. The sisters faced major backlash and multimillion-dollar lawsuits, prompting them to pull out their products 24 hours after the brand's launch.

2. Adidas and Forever 21's ongoing dispute over stripes

Former fast-fashion giant Forever 21 is no stranger to being on the receiving end of infringement cases. In 2017, the clothing company was sued by German sportswear brand Adidas when its three-stripe symbol made its way into the defendant's sportswear collection. Both parties settled a similar lawsuit in 2015, but this time, Forever 21 retaliated. In their countersuit, Forever 21 claimed that Adidas is a bully for crying infringement against anyone who uses stripes regardless of the number. The case has been put on hold after Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy in 2019.

3. Harley-Davidson puts the brakes on SunFrog

Renowned motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson called out print-on-demand platform SunFrog for selling shirts that bear their logos. This issue confused SunFrog's customers, who were under the impression that both brands were affiliated. Harley-Davidson ultimately won the case and was awarded $19.2 million for damages.

4. Gucci and Guess' nine-year-long legal battle

In 2009, Gucci filed several multimillion-dollar lawsuits across several countries against Guess, claiming that the latter's use of interlocking "G" prints infringes on the Italian luxury brand's print trademarks. Gucci managed to win the lawsuit filed in New York and Nanjing, China, but the Milan and Paris courts, along with the European Union General Court, ruled in favor of Guess. Both parties reached an agreement in 2018-almost 10 years after their legal war started.

5. Nirvana turns Marc Jacobs' smile upside-down

In 2018, Nirvana accused Marc Jacobs of copyright and trademark infringement over the unauthorized use of their smiley face logo on a sweatshirt, t-shirt, and a pair of socks from the fashion house's Redux Grunge collection. Marc Jacobs filed a countersuit not long after, initially to argue that the smiley face is a universal symbol. Two years later, Marc Jacobs filed another motion, adding that the grunge band failed to register the copyright in the first place. All cases are ongoing

Copyright and Trademark: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?

Copyright and trademark are two of the three main areas of intellectual property. According to the US Department of State, intellectual property "embodies unique work reflecting someone's creativity."

The Copyright Society of the USA defines copyright as "a form of protection given to the authors or creators of 'original works of authorship,' including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and other intellectual works." Copyright is enforced the moment the work is fixed on a tangible medium-written on paper, painted on a canvas, published online, etc.-and lasts 70 years after the creator's death.

Now you're probably wondering how to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts. It's really simple: if you come across a photo, poem, or painting that you would like to repurpose as a t-shirt design, you need approval from its owner. Unauthorized use can result in fines up to $250,000 and even imprisonment. You can read more about the legal ramifications of copyright infringement here. If you're curious about how to copyright t-shirt designs, the US Copyright Office breaks down the whole process.

On the other hand, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) defines a trademark as "any word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination of these things that identifies your goods or services." Brand logos fall under this classification. If you want to learn how to trademark a t-shirt slogan or other design elements, USPTO has a step-by-step guide for online filing.

Copyright vs Trademark

What Are Fair Use and Public Domain?

There are circumstances where you can freely incorporate copyrighted or trademarked material on your custom t-shirt design. Under the fair use doctrine, these include "criticism, comment, news, reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research." Parody designs, for instance, fall under fair use if they satisfy these four factors under Section 107 of the Copyright Law:

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

On the other hand, creative works whose copyright has expired or been forfeited are reclassified as public domain. This means the public can freely use, copy, and market such works in any way without legal consequences.

How to Avoid Copyright and Trademark Infringement

T-shirt printing companies have different ways to determine if t-shirt designs submitted by customers are infringing on copyrighted and trademarked works. They can also identify if you're using a royalty-free t-shirt design for profit. Here is a list of standard practices to confirm whether a design is original or a copy, and what customers can do to avoid copyright infringement or unauthorized trademark use.

  • Household names with widely recognized logos and brand assets such as Amazon, Google, Walmart, Target, and Disney. The customer or submitter must have direct relations with these brands; otherwise, a confirmation of permission is required before proceeding with the order.
  • Companies and organizations such as local banks and hospitals. If the website does not have copyright information and if the customer has direct relations with the company or organization, the order can proceed without the copyright or trademark owner's permission.
  • Smaller businesses such as local trucking services, construction companies, and landscapers. Copyrighted and trademarked works under this classification no longer require permission from the owner.
  • Colleges and universities that are members of the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) require specific permissions before allowing non-licensed vendors access to their assets.
  • Non-CLC members must be checked manually for licensed vendors. If there are any licensed vendors, approval must be requested from their respective trademarking departments. If there are no licensed vendors, permission is still required from the college or university to use their brand assets in custom t-shirts. Orders placed by employees can proceed without permission.
  • Watermarked images mean they were downloaded illegally. The customer will be required to purchase a high-quality version of the image instead.
  • Veterans are allowed to use military logos for personal use. On the other hand, active military personnel must first seek approval from their licensing department.
  • Greek-letter organizations are trademarked; hence, production is not allowed without their approval. You may refer to this database to confirm if your fraternity or sorority is protected by trademark laws.
  • Professional sports logos are trademarked; hence, only licensed vendors are allowed to distribute custom t-shirts with their logos.
  • Designs that involve artworks, paintings, and photographs that are not made by the customer need permission from the creator.

It's easy to confuse inspiration with imitation, so the best way to avoid infringing on copyright designs is to develop an original design. We have a beginner-friendly online tool that you can use to personalize your custom t-shirts. Let your imagination run free! Now that you are familiar with copyright and trademark rules, make sure to remember them when you work on your creations.

Want to learn more about t-shirt printing? Visit these guides:
Everything You Need to Know About T-Shirt Printing
What to Consider When Choosing a T-Shirt Printing Company