When starting your t-shirt business you might encounter some confusing legal issues that leave you stumped. Can I use this picture in my t-shirt design? Is it okay to mimic this logo for my brand logo? What’s stopping people online from stealing my ideas? And what’s the difference between a copyright and a trademark anyway? The legalities of business can’t be over looked, so we’re gonna break some of it down to make things a little easier to understand. Here are some basic legal tips you should keep in mind when launching your t-shirt business.
Copyright and Trademarks
A copyright is simply 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 random images from the internet without consent from the source. Images from the internet are usually protected by copyright, unless they’re from a non-photographer’s photo album or something (your Auntie Jane’s Facebook photos), but even unregistered photos require some form of permission. 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 if someone recognized the image.
EDIT: Recently looked into CreativeCommons.com and found out you’re free to use any image you find through their search engine for commercial use, as long as you credit the owner!
Although not all quotes are legally protected, when using quotes from famous figures in t-shirt designs it’s best to quote the person who originally said it. Just give them their credit, even if it’s in super tiny print, or in the product description on your website. In the possible event that the person being quoted (or people associated with him/her) comes across your t-shirt they’ll at least respect the fact that they were credited. Beyond that there may still be some legal implications based on whether the author decides to pursue any action.
Avoid using characters you didn’t create in t-shirt designs unless you have a license to do so. Just make up your own characters or get someone else to. The only instance in which using popular characters can passable is in a parody design. These pop up all the time. As long as you make it clear that your design is a parody you should be able to avoid a lawsuit.
Writing and signing contracts
If you’re starting a business with other people you might want to consider making it official with a contract. 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 your options and thought about the future of your company. If you plan on drafting a contract yourself, find some sample contracts online or in books so you get a good idea of how to format one.
Parodying familiar figures, icons, and logos
As mentioned above, parody in t-shirt designs is allowed thanks to the “Fair Use” provision. 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 take it easy and be smart with it.
In most cases it is okay to use the likeness of political figures in your t-shirt designs. It’s no wonder there are so many political t-shirts on the market. The only situation you wouldn’t be safe using the image of a political figure is if you use a famous photo in one of your designs. 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 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!