When starting your t-shirt business you might come across confusing legal issues. The legalities of business can’t be over looked, so we’re gonna break some of it down so it’s easier to understand. Make sure you know your stuff before you get into legal trouble!
Copyright and Trademarks
A copyright is the right to copy and gives the copyright holder the right to be credited for the work, to determine who may adapt the work to other forms, financially benefit from it, and other related rights. A trademark is a type of intellectual property, and typically a name, word, phrase, logo, symbol, or a combination of these elements. You should copyright your t-shirt designs and trademark your brand name and logo to protect them legally. But don’t stress about copyright and trademark too early– legal protection is not necessary to start your t-shirt business, but is recommended if the funds are available. It’s definitely necessary as you progress.
Images from the internet
Don’t use them without consent. Images from the internet are usually protected by copyright, unless their from a non-photographer’s photo album or something. There are ways of beating the system though: If you use a basic, generic picture, for example, one of a dog, you’d probably get away with it in some cases. If there is nothing peculiar about the photo you use and it looks like something you could very well have photographed yourself, most likely the copyright holder won’t really be able to distinguish the image and wouldn’t waste time trying to hunt you down. On the other hand if you use a picture that’s very specific or complex, for example, a picture of a white pit-bull with black spots wearing a football helmet, eating M&Ms, you could get caught easily.
EDIT: Recently looked into CreativeCommons.com and apparently you can use an image you find through their website for commercial use, as long as you credit the owner!
When using quotes in t-shirt designs you should quote the person who originally said it. Don’t pretend that you made it up. Just give them their credit, even if it’s in super tiny print. You definitely wouldn’t like it if you said something funny one day and saw it on a bunch of t-shirts the next, without any recognition, let alone payment, for it.
Never use them unless you have a license to do so. Just make up your own characters or get someone else to. Simple as that. Using popular characters in an attempt to sell quick is just plain crooked and uncreative.
Writing and signing contracts
Learn the ins and outs of contracts before writing or signing them or you’ll get screwed. Also, don’t sign a contract for anything until you’ve weighed out the options of having the contract signed or not, as well as how you’d feel about your decision to sign when a few months go by. Find some sample contracts online or in books so you get an idea of how they should be formatted when creating your own.
Parodying familiar figures and icons
It’s allowed thanks to the right to parody. Just don’t get too crazy with it. When your parodying becomes overly offensive you may get attacked and or kidnapped by the entourage of figure you’re parodying. Or maybe even nabbed for defamation of character. Just beware.
In most cases they can be used. It’s no wonder there are so many political t-shirts on the market. The only situation you wouldn’t be safe using them is if you find a famous photo of a political figure. The photo would most likely be recognized as the photographer’s famous photo, so you’d be in hot water. In addition to political figures you can also use flags, coat of arms, and national symbols where ever and when ever you want.
(Disclaimer: Although we are knowledgeable on certain important legal aspects of a t-shirt business, we’re not lawyers. This info is intended to inform you and keep you aware of the general legal aspects of a t-shirt business. We’d recommend doing additional research on your specific concerns, or consulting a lawyer for more information on what legal processes to follow for your business.
BONUS TIP: Read our book LAUNCH A KICK-ASS T-SHIRT BRAND for in depth advice and tips like these. Tons of useful information you can’t afford to miss!