Basics of T-Shirt Design Copyright and What You Can Print

T-shirt printing has always been a popular commodity, especially because custom t-shirts are easy to make and allow people to express their creativity and style without taking a huge fashion risk.  However, the laws of copyright can be a tricky matter to work around, even when you are printing on t-shirts. Ever seen people outside venues selling cheap, bootleg concert tees or sports tees on the night of big events? While it’s nice to have those affordable options, those are unfortunately considered illegal.

It’s important to retain knowledge of all the intellectual property laws before diving into the world of printing & selling custom t shirts to avoid any potential legal issues.  

Whether you intend to print a shirt with words or picture t-shirts, intellectual property laws will apply to you, especially if you plan to sell them for profit. Of course, copyright is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, which does make following the rules a bit trickier than expected.  

What can be considered copyrighted material? 

Print a picture that you took on a shirt, and you’re in the clear. However, when you start getting into the idea of printing text, quotes, popular imagery, or even art on a shirt to sell for profit, you’re diving into the territory of intellectual property.

The following works could be considered intellectual property: 

  • Literature 
  • Music 
  • Graphic, pictorial, and sculptural art 
  • Dramatic productions 
  • Choreography 
  • TV & Film 
  • Architectural work and concepts 
  • Designer Brands 
  • & yes, even Memes can be considered intellectual property 

What this means is that your idea of designing and printing fan-made merchandise may not be possible in the way that you’d think.

It’s important to note that ideas cannot be copyrighted, it’s the finished product that can. So, while you can garner inspiration from something, you cannot copy or steal the final product.  

What is considered fair use? 

While the term “fair use” is not a black-and-white subject matter, the U.S. copyright office offers the following questions you can ask yourself to determine if what you are printing infringes copyright. 

  1. What is the purpose and character of use?  
  2. What is the nature of the copyrighted work? 
  3. What is the amount and substantiality of the portion used regarding the copyrighted work? 
  4. What is the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work? 

So, if you’re printing your t-shirts for non-commercial use, you have a much better chance of fitting into the category of fair use. 

What can I print on a T-shirt? 

The following are not covered under copyright or trademark laws:

a. Royalty-free images  
b. Any image or elements found in the public domain 
c. Any quote found in the public domain  
d. Works from artists who have been deceased for more than 70 years 
e. Quotes of common sayings and parodies 
f. National flags, symbols, and even the likenesses of political figures, as well as coats of arms.  

You can also find free photos for commercial use on some websites. The only catch is that the user must credit the owner of the photos. If there are no such legal permissions required, then the act of tracking the owner of the photo and getting approval from them will suffice. 

And last, but not least, of course, you can print your own artwork. 

Can I print my logo, artwork, or design onto the T-shirts? 

You can absolutely print your own t-shirt with your logo, artwork, or design. It might even interest you to look into getting your own designs copyrighted.  

How do I copyright my own design?  

The process is easy as long as there is no pending or existing copyright associated with your design. You’ll need to fill out a form, pay the fee associated with it, and send a copy of your design to the U.S. Copyright Office.  

How do I get licensing rights for t-shirts? 

If you would like to design, print, and sell merchandise of already copyrighted material, you would need to contact the trademark holder and request permission to sell clothing with the design(s) in question. This will likely come with a fee and a contract that needs to be reviewed and signed by both parties.

Do’s and Don’ts of T-Shirt Design & Printing

Now that you have a better understanding of copyright and intellectual property, let’s dive into some design tips you should consider when creating your t shirt design.

Do: Use complementary and contrasting colors (in both designs and t-shirts) 
Don’t: Use the same color t-shirt & design or go overboard with color  

Think of your t-shirt as your canvas, or your background. If your design calls for a white background, then you print on a white t-shirt. If your design looks best with a black background, you print on a black t-shirt. Avoid making the primary color of the design the same color as the t-shirt. i.e. – black text/design on a black t-shirt, white text/design on a white t-shirt, as it will be difficult to see and quite frankly, a waste of a t-shirt. 

Do: Focus on typefaces, fonts, & typography 
Don’t: Use more than 3 typefaces or fonts in a design 

Neglecting text on your t-shirt design might be one of the worst things you could do. Typography plays a key role in making a well-rounded design. You’ll have to make sure that any typeface you select is legible and complements your design. Of course, remember that some typefaces contain a copyright, or require purchasing a license for commercial use. So, if you plan to sell your t-shirts, consider this when you’re looking for a typeface. Remember, when it comes to typography, using more than one font is acceptable and can even make your design better, but too much variety can very quickly make your design look unprofessional.  

Do: Be mindful of design composition 
Don’t: Over-complicate your design 

In design, layout is EVERYTHING. The composition of your elements relies on the canvas. In this case, it’s a T-shirt. Consider how you want your design to look not only on a T-shirt but on a person wearing a T-shirt. Most of the time, centering your design makes the most sense, but you can get crafty with composition if you keep the full vision of the finished product in mind. Even if you are creating a complex design, be sure that you don’t overdo it with too many elements, which could result in visually exhausting designs.

Do: Use the t-shirt space wisely 
Don’t: Print an identical design of the same size on both the front and back 

If your intention is to display a design on both sides of a t-shirt, we recommend making the front and back cohesive, but different. For example, you can choose to make the front design a small, simplified version and confine it to the left or right chest, while the full-blown design can be on the back. If you want to make full use of all printable areas on both sides, create a cohesive design that will make sense whether you look at it from front to back, or back to front. That way, the design isn’t identical, but the two sides will complement each other.  

Do: Target a niche audience 
Don’t: Print random but popular designs 

When you focus on a specific niche or audience, you’re more likely to get referrals and repeat customers. Focusing your resources on design and marketing in one industry or field will allow you to target specific audiences and grow in a given community.  Of course, if you’re targeting a niche audience within pop culture, like fandoms of a film, TV show, or a book series, make sure you have clearance or an official license for selling your designs.

Do: Take inspiration from trends 
Don’t: Copy another artist or creator’s work 

This is a tricky subject for many because this is where copyright, intellectual property, and the legality of designs for commercial use come into play. When seeking out inspiration from trending topics, be mindful that there could be a copyright tied to that specific thing. You can easily look this information up on the U.S. Copyright Office database, or give them a call.

Do: Research your vendor and printer options thoroughly before making a decision  
Don’t: Skimp out on quality 

While it’s always good to look for the best pricing, especially if you intend to print and sell in bulk, on the other end of the spectrum, it’s very easy to tell when a T-shirt is made of subpar materials or won’t last long. Of course, cheaper doesn’t always mean poor quality. Your best bet is to do thorough research before choosing a T-shirt printer. Consider t-shirt material, like the percentage of cotton, or the weight, read reviews, find small businesses that print on the same T-shirt brand you’re considering and see what customers say about their products, or even request samples directly from the vendor- all these steps will assist you in making an informed decision that’ll prove to be beneficial for both you and your customers. 

Take a look at our t-shirt printing services to see if we’re a good fit!

Need help creating a T-shirt? Check out our blog on 7 Tips for Creating a Killer T-Shirt Design 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *