Although the choice of possible t shirt designs seems endless, there are a few things to keep in mind. One of the most important (and sometimes overlooked) is intellectual property rights.
Can you just use anything in your t shirt design? Not exactly. Certain designs, images, slogans, and other forms of content are legally protected. This means you can't just use the logos of your favorite sports teams in a design or certain things from your favorite television shows. However, that doesn't mean your t shirt design has to be boring.
(Note: The following is not intended to be legal advice. If you're in doubt about copyright laws, consider consulting a lawyer.)
What's a trademark?
While most people have heard the terms trademark and copyright (and may use them interchangeably), not everybody knows what they mean -- or what that might entail.
A trademark refers to a recognizable phrase, word, symbol, or design that denotes a specific product and legally differentiates it from other products of its kind. Among other things, trademark laws protect a company's brand (and brand names).
(The Nike Swoosh is one of the world's most iconic trademarks. Thinking about trying to use it in a t shirt design? Just don't do it!)
What's a copyright?
Copyright refers to the legal right of protecting an owner of "original works of authorship." It's a type of intellectual property that can include literary, musical, or graphic creations. In other words, copyright laws prevent you from uploading Disney movies to Youtube.
What does this mean for your custom clothing?
Trademark and copyright laws limit what you can legally do with your t shirt designs -- especially if you're making t shirts for commercial purposes, since it's a quick way to get sued out of the t shirt business (and quite possibly lose the shirt off your back in the process... not to mention your home).
More importantly, this means you can't just grab images from search engines for your t shirt designs because those images may be protected.
NOTE: It doesn't matter whether you're purchasing a few items for yourself or a friend, Bolt Printing cannot sell you merchandise that uses trademarked or copyrighted images owned by someone else.
Does something need to have the copyright symbol next to it to be protected?
No. Although the copyright symbol notes that a work has a copyright protection (which is why it should be placed on copyrighted material -- especially because it helps during a copyright infringement suit, since the offending party can't use an innocent infringement defense), it's not what actually protects the copyright. Whether or not the symbol is near the copyrighted material, the content is still protected under copyright law.
A creator's work is automatically copyrighted the second it's created. While it doesn't have to be registered to be protected, copyright registration makes it easier to prevent unauthorized use and helps when you need to file a copyright infringement lawsuit.
What's something nobody wants yet nobody wants to lose? A lawsuit!
Intellectual property violations can have serious consequences. The copyright owner can pursue legal action, which in some cases can have devastating financial repercussions (particularly in the case of flagrant copyright infringement). In short, trademark and copyright infringement is no laughing matter.
If you're in doubt about whether something is trademarked or copyrighted, you're probably better off not using it (to avoid any potential legal risks). However, if you're really interested in using a graphic where the ownership is uncertain, you can always try using a reverse image search to identify the copyright owners.
Trademarked and copyrighted content that can't be used on your custom apparel
As a general rule, if the design relates to any of the following, it's almost certainly either trademarked or copyrighted (and therefore we CANNOT print it).
Licensed characters (ie, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny)
Musical groups and singers/musicians (ie, The Beatles, Taylor Swift, BTS, Ed Sheeran)
Sports teams (ie, the NY Yankees, the New England Patriots, the Dallas Mavericks)
Athletes and most celebrities (ie, Kobe Bryant, Tom Cruise, Heath Ledger, Gordon Ramsay)
Comic book characters (ie, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Iron Man)
Anime characters (ie, Goku, Vegeta, Luffy, Naruto, Saitama)
Video game characters (ie, Mario, Pikachu, Link, Zelda, Master Chief, Kratos, Mega Man)
Cartoons (ie, Transformers, Scooby Doo, Spongebob Squarepants, the Simpsons, South Park, Bojack Horseman)
Movies (ie, Star Wars, James Bond, Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters)
TV shows (ie, Squid Game, Ted Lasso, Doctor Who, Star Trek)
Books that came out in the last 70+ years (ie, Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Mistborn)
Popular brand logos (ie, Nike, Adidas, Gucci, Louis Vuitton)
Fast food logos (ie, McDonald's (who won't be "lovin' it"if you pirate their logo), Burger King, KFC, Wendy's)
Famous logos (ie, the Olympics)Theme parks (ie, Six Flags, Cedar Point, Universal Studios)
Anything related to Disney (ie, Mickey Mouse ears, Cinderella's castle, Disney World, Disney Land, Epcot)
Keep in mind those are just a few examples of the countless trademarks and copyrights out there.
"Okay, I hear you, but what if the custom tees are for...?"
A birthday party?
A family reunion?
My church group?
A non profit?
A charity event?
A gag gift?
Just for myself and I promise I won't wear it in public?
Nope! That doesn't change anything. You still can't use it as a t shirt design unless you have permission from the intellectual property's owner.
(This is the Gucci logo. Buying official Gucci merchandise is cheaper than hiring lawyers to defend you if you get caught using their logo without permission.)
"Okay, okay, I hear all that, but I redrew or altered the image for my shirt design, so that must count, right?"
No, you can't just redraw or change trademarked or copyrighted content to get around the law. If it was that easy, trademarks and copyrights would be useless.
Whether you redraw a piece of artwork, use characters in a completely new artwork, or just use the title of the work, it doesn't matter -- you can't use it on a custom shirt.
(This is the Mickey Mouse logo. Unless your happiest place on Earth is a court room, don't try to put it on a custom tee.)
"What if I bought the image or custom design off Etsy (or another service)?"
Unless the artist got permission from the intellectual property's owner, you can't reproduce an image that uses a trademark or copyright. (And only the owner can give the artist permission to use that trademark or copyright in the first place -- in many cases, the artist doesn't have that permission and shouldn't be selling the image at all.)
(Odds are the shop owners on Etsy and other sites don't have permission to use Bugs Bunny in their designs. If you try to use Bugs in a graphic design without permission, you may find yourself saying, "Eh, what's up, judge?")
And buying an original piece of artwork off Etsy (ie, from a seller who owns all of the relevant copyrights) doesn't always mean you can legally reproduce their art. That's something you'd have to clarify with the seller.
In cases where you specifically commission the art, you generally would get the copyright (but you should get that in writing) -- and, as always, that wouldn't apply to things using somebody else's copyright (meaning you can't go on Fiverr and ask somebody to draw something involving Mickey Mouse).
"But what about fair use? Doesn't that mean I can fairly use it on my custom t-shirts?"
One of the major exceptions under copyright law is the fair use doctrine. The U.S. Copyright Office describes fair use as "a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances."
Some of those circumstances include "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research." In simpler terms, it's why a review can use images from the movie being reviewed.
Unfortunately, most fair use exemptions don't apply to t shirt design.
Keep in mind even if you think you're protected by fair use, you could be sued by copyright holders and even if you're ultimately vindicated in court, there's a chance you might be stuck with legal fees.
Does fair use apply to trademarks, too?
Short answer -- it depends.
There are certain contexts where fair use can apply to a trademark. Unsurprisingly, most don't concern t shirt design.
(Tony the Tiger is the mascot for Frosted Flakes. Kellogg's won't think it's "gr-r-reat!" if you try to use him without permission... and they also won't be thrilled if you try to use "They're gr-r-reat!" as one of your t shirt quotes, since it's a trademarked slogan.)
Is everything copyrighted or trademarked? What can I even use on my custom shirts?
With all of this talk of copyright law, you might be left thinking there's nothing out there that can be used. Thankfully, that's not the case.
First, you have things in the public domain. These are works outside the realm of copyrights for one reason or another.
Second, you have things like national symbols which can't be copyrighted -- a country's flag, for instance. (A photo or artwork of that flag might be copyrighted, but you can't be sued for drawing that flag or taking your own photo.)
Then you also have creative commons and royalty free images where there might be a copyright holder, but you're able to incorporate their work into your own design.
What's the public domain? And how can it help me customize shirts?
Throughout the course of human history, people have created a LOT of literature, music, artwork, and other original material. Some of it goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The public domain refers to creative material that isn't protected by intellectual property laws (ie, copyrights, trademarks, patents, etc). Rather than being owned by an individual, the public owns these works.
Or, in much simpler terms, works within the public domain can be used by anybody (no permission needed), but nobody can ever own them.
Works usually arrive in the public domain through one of four ways:
The copyright has expired. A copyright is only valid for a certain length of time, after which it can no longer be claimed. (Copyright rules vary depending on the country. In the US, it lasts for the life of the original creator, plus an additional 70 years.)
The copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules.
The copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain.
Copyright law doesn't protect that type of work.
Everybody is no doubt familiar with at least a few examples of fictional characters in the public domain -- Dracula, Frankenstein, and -- more recently -- Sherlock Holmes. All of these characters can be used in a t shirt design, although some depictions are copyrighted and the artwork featuring them is likely copyrighted.
It can be a little confusing when parts of a fictional franchise are in the public domain and others aren't. In the case of Sherlock Holmes and Peter Pan, the earliest works entered the public domain (and so did the characters), but the later stories, plays, and so on are still protected. (And original work created using those characters is protected -- meaning you can't just use images from Disney's Peter Pan, even if you redraw the characters.)
However, there are a wealth of royalty free images of these characters out there if you want to put them on a t shirt.
How is the public domain different from Creative Commons?
The organization provides Creative Commons licenses and public domain tools "that give every person and organization in the world a free, simple, and standardized way to grant copyright permissions for creative and academic works; ensure proper attribution; and allow others to copy, distribute, and make use of those works."
Works within the public domain can't be copyrighted. Creative Commons licenses, on the other hand, allow certain copyrighted material to be used.
To learn more, check out their site.
Can you copyright t shirt designs?
Short answer -- it depends.
If the design incorporates your own work (like an original character or an image you created), the underlying elements of that design could be protected. If it contains a catchphrase you've popularized (for example on a stream or in Youtube videos), that could be copyrighted, too. For certain things you need to file a copyright whereas other copyrights are automatically "created" (for example, unpublished literary works).
However, if your design uses elements for which you don't have the exclusive rights, you may not be able to obtain a copyright.
If you're getting into creating t shirt designs for commercial use, you should probably consult a copyright law attorney at some point or the U.S. Copyright Office.
Err on the side of safety when customizing shirts
If you don't have the legal permission to somebody else's work (or somebody else's copyright), you're generally better off not trying to take a chance in using it -- especially if you're buying custom t shirts for a commercial use (ie, re-selling them).
When it comes to copyright infractions, you don't want to take unnecessary risks.
Alternatives to trademarked and copyrighted material
Let's say you want to celebrate a favorite sports team or like a design, but don't want to risk getting in trouble for copyright infringement. What can you do?
First, remember that not everything can be trademarked or copyrighted. While the "Chicago Bulls," for example, can't be tossed on a t shirt without risking legal issues, nobody can copyright the word "Bulls" by itself. Likewise, the iconic Chicago Bulls logo can't be used in your t shirt design unless you have prior permission from the trademark holder, but there's nothing stopping you from using some other image of a bull. (It gets trickier if you use a football instead. And you could get in trouble if you were using the team colors.)
Do you have a child who wants a superhero-themed birthday party? While you can't use the iconic Batman logo, nothing's stopping you from using a normal bat (seen above is clip art from our design tool, which can be used in t shirt designs). For Spider-Man, there are normal spider graphics. And, if you wanted to do something Superman-themed, you could have the first initial of your child's own name on the t shirts instead of the "S".