You want to start a t-shirt business, and you’re confident it will succeed because you have the ideas and familiarity with your target customer base to make it work. But despite all your design and marketing efforts, if you fail to take precautions against potential intellectual property issues that may arise, your efforts may be in vain. Whether you plan to adorn your t-shirts with images, words, or both, below is a list of a few common legal traps in the t-shirt startup industry and tips on how to avoid these mistakes.
In today’s Internet age, there is hardly an image you can imagine in your mind that you cannot find on the Internet. And now, with sites like tumblr and pinterest gaining popularity, the inventory of shared images on the Internet is growing. So what does this mean for t-shirt companies? From a legal perspective, this means that while t-shirt designers come across more images on the web every day that they are tempted to use for their t-shirt designs, their ability to use the images does not change. Most images on the Internet are the protected property of an individual and thus not available for public use. By using these images without permission from the owner, you subject yourself to contention from the owner, which could escalate to a lawsuit. Thus the general rule to follow is to refrain from using any image from the Internet that does not belong to you.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Most images of political figures, as well as images of flags and other national symbols, are available for public use. However, images of popular characters, such as Disney characters or characters from TV shows and movies, are protected. The more general the image is, the less protection is likely to be attached to it, and vice versa. This means that an image of a miniature schnauzer in a football suit sitting in a can of M&Ms will most likely be protected from public use, while an image of only a miniature schnauzer and nothing else is less likely to be protected.
You may be tempted to quote a famous artist or comedian on your t-shirt to increase sales. There is nothing illegal about this as long as you attribute the quote to its rightful owner. If you are concerned about the attribution taking attention away from the actual quote, you can print the owner’s name in miniscule font – but it must be somewhere on the t-shirt.
Another cautionary note regarding words on t-shirts is to not get too crazy with political parodying. The line between humor and defamation may seem fuzzy at times, but in the legal world this distinction is essential. If you have any doubt whether you have crossed that line in your t-shirt design, it may be a good idea to seek the opinion of friends or consult an attorney. This may sound like a lot of work to do before you even make any money from your t-shirts, but the time and money you will save from future lawsuits makes the extra precautionary steps now completely worth your while.
Protecting Your Own Design
Finally, you may be wondering, “OK, I have taken every precautionary step imaginable to protect myself from potential copyright and trademark lawsuits, but how and when should I take steps to protect my own designs?” It is important to protect your own designs so that others do not use them without giving you credit for them, whether it be photographs that you took or designs you created, but it is not necessary to file for protection right away. Especially if you are operating on a low budget initially, you may decide to wait until you’ve made some profit from a design or at least seen some evidence of its success to file for a copyright or trademark on that design.
The most important thing to remember when you are starting your t-shirt business is that most images and words you find on the Internet are the protected work of an individual. In the same way that you do not want others taking your ideas and creations without giving you credit for them, you do not want to do that to others. To be safe, take your own photos, popularize your own sayings, and if you are ever in doubt, consult an attorney for professional legal advice.