How To Avoid Copyright Infringement With T-Shirts the Easy Way

Whether you want to make an awesome birthday gift for your best friend or start a small business, creating t-shirts with various prints can get you in trouble with the U.S. copyright laws, especially with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998.

To avoid copyright infringement of content under the DMCA protection, you should understand how copyright works in general, how long it lasts, and how to copyright your creative work. 

How Does T-Shirt Design Copyright Infringement Work?

Copyright claims, author’s rights, copyright notices, and intellectual property—copyright has a lot of rules and concepts that might be confusing or unfamiliar to you. The most important takeaway is that all original creative content enjoys copyright protection. Every time someone copies or uses it without the author’s permission qualifies as copyright infringement.


If you think that it would be cute to print a new t-shirt with Mickey Mouse on it, you may be right, but it will count as copyright infringement of Disney’s intellectual property. Besides images and other visual artwork, copyrighted content includes:

  • Music
  • Literary works, including quotes
  • Choreography
  • Plays and movie scripts
  • Movies and TV shows
  • Sculpture
  • Architectural works
  • Digital content, including video games, websites, and software

Copyright Infringement Repercussions

The worst that can happen when you print a t-shirt with a copyrighted design is that the author files a lawsuit against you. This scenario is possible only if the author registers their work officially with the U.S. Copyright Office

While small creators usually won’t go that far and will opt for takedown notices and cease and desist letters, big companies that own the rights to popular movies, TV shows, music, and characters have huge legal teams that won’t hesitate to take you to court. 

The possible penalties in such situations include:

Criminal penalties

  • Fines of up to $250,000
  • Imprisonment of up to five years

Civil penalties

  • Damages ranging from $750 to $30,000
  • Fines amounting to $150,000 per infringed work if the prosecution proves willful infringement
  • Lawsuit costs and attorney fees 

Is Printing a Logo Copyright Infringement?

Copyright laws don’t protect logos, but it doesn’t mean you can use them without any concern. Logos, symbols, company names, and other similar content used to recognize a brand fall under trademark laws and the regulation of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

To understand the difference between copyrighted and trademarked material better, consult the table below:

Learn About The: Copyright Trademark

Content Type

Original creative works like books, songs, movies, etc.  Any content (word, symbol, or design) used to identify the source of goods 

Requirements

  • Creativity
  • Originality
  • The tangibility of the used format 
  • Distinction from other trademarked content
Protection Duration Author’s life and an additional 70 years As long as it’s used in commerce

Designing t-shirts with an image of Iron Man and the Marvel logo are two different violations of intellectual property laws, but the most important idea is that neither is allowed. 

Does My T-Shirt Design Infringe on Copyright?

If you’re hesitating to start printing out t-shirts due to possible copyright infringement, you can use these questions to determine whether you should go for it or rework your designs:

  1. Do I have written permission or a license to use this image? If you find a cool design on the internet, you should reach out to the author and ask for authorization in writing that you can use it on a t-shirt. In case the website where you found it didn’t give credits to the author, you still don’t have the right to use it. You can attempt to contact big companies for a license to use their copyrighted content, but those licenses usually cost exorbitant amounts of money
  2. Can I defend my t-shirt design under the fair use doctrine? Using copyrighted content without infringement is possible in certain situations under the fair use doctrine, but the court decides about the validity of such defense on a case-by-case basis
  3. Can I use this image without authorization? While you need to be extra careful when using images from the internet, public domain content doesn’t require any special permissions. Due to the limits on copyright duration, you can now use all creative works produced before 1925. The public domain cut-off point moves up every year, so even more content becomes available

How To Steer Clear of T-Shirts Copyright Infringement

The best way to avoid copyright infringement when printing t-shirts is to use original designs. Even if graphic design isn’t your forte, an increasing number of programs offers easy-to-use tools for creating and editing visual content. 

The table below can help you understand the dos and don’ts of original design work:

Do Don’t
  • Use royalty-free images
  • Quote public domain authors who died more than 70 years ago
  • Incorporate images like national symbols, flags, coats of arms, etc.
  • Check specific rules for commercial use even when downloading images from free stock websites
  • Use existing logos, names, and slogans 
  • Make t-shirt designs with pictures of celebrities
  • Use memes or content found on social media, as they might involve copyrighted material
  • Quote from authors who are still alive

Resources for Avoiding Copyright Infringement With T-Shirts

If you plan to start selling t-shirts with creative designs, check out this table of useful resources for images that won’t cause copyright infringement lawsuits

Content Websites

Public domain images

Typography

Design elements

Those who are looking for the best design software can use DoNotPay to access free trials of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator without risking their credit card information. 

How Can DoNotPay Help With T-Shirt Copyright Infringement? 

Avoiding copyright infringement with t-shirts is complicated enough. You don’t need someone else stealing your original work after hours of research about what can and can’t be used. If you notice your digital print on someone else’s t-shirt, you can protect your creative effort with DoNotPay. 

Registering the copyright and filing lawsuits can be great methods to secure your rights, but they’re usually the last resort. The better way is to create a DMCA takedown notice with DoNotPay and send it to the website owner or the infringer’s internet service provider.

Relying on DoNotPay to create well-written and efficient takedown notices will save you time spent on learning about the DMCA and money you would otherwise spend on lawyers. 

You can get your takedown notice by following these simple steps:

  1. Set up your DoNotPay account in any web browser
  2. Select DMCA Takedown
  3. Answer a few questions about your work and the infringement
  4. Confirm your contact details
  5. Click on Sign and Submit

What Else Can DoNotPay Do?

Our platform is full of other practical solutions to your administrative struggles. You can access all of DoNotPay’s features from any web browser. Log in and learn how to: