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Copyright 101: Can I Print That?

By Nora Inveiss - Reading time: 3 minutes

Let’s say you just heard an incredible song and you loved it so much that you want to print a shirt with the lyrics on it ASAP. You start prepping your print files, but then you’re struck with an important question: am I breaking any copyright laws?

We get a lot of questions from customers concerned about copyright. They have a great idea they know will be a hit, but they’re not sure if it’s legal to print. In this blog, I’ll go over some copyright rules to help figure that out.

Before I continue, I’d like to point out that Printful doesn’t assume liability for copyright infringements. And this blog post should not serve as concrete legal advice – consulting a copyright attorney is always the best route if you have specific questions about your products.

What is Copyright Law?

Copyright protects a creator’s work from being distributed by other parties and it ensures that the work is considered the property of the creator. The work must be original and “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” which means that it must exist in a physical form. It also needs to be the result of some creative effort; the exact amount of creative effort is open to interpretation.

Copyright comes into effect immediately after the work is published (specific definition of what constitutes “published” varies). As of 1989, a copyright notice isn’t necessary, but it’s still a good thing to have in case the creator needs to defend his or her intellectual property in court.

The duration of copyright depends on the date in which the work was published and made available to the public. In the United States, anything published before 1923 is in the public domain, meaning it’s not protected by copyright. Works published between 1922 and 1978 are protected for 95 years after publication, unless renewed by the author. Everything published after 1977 is protected for the duration of the author’s life and another 70 years after his or her death.

What Can I Print?

The most straightforward answer is that any work under public domain can be used without permission from the author. Take this Chat Noir poster as an example:

theophile-alexandre-steinlen-tournee-du-chat-noir-1896-www.freevintageposters.com

This poster was created in 1896 and its author, Theophile Steinlen, passed away in 1923. It’s in the public domain as per French copyright standards and can legally be reprinted.

The Fair Use Act

There is also the FAIR USE ACT to consider, and it complicates things a little. The Fair Use Act was created to “balance the rights of copyright owners with society’s interest in allowing copying in certain, limited circumstances.” It essentially lets other people use copyrighted materials under fair circumstances in the interest of free speech and cultural advancements.

The definition of “fair circumstances” is broad. There’s a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to what’s considered fair and it’s up to the court to decide. Generally, these are the factors that determine whether something fair:

  • The purpose and character of use
    How is the copyrighted work being used? It’s usually acceptable to use copyrighted material for educational purposes, research, parody, or commentary. However, it’s less likely to be considered fair if it’s for commercial gain.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
    The more creative the work, the more it’s protected under copyright. Statistics and facts aren’t protected under copyright and can be used without permission.
  • The amount of work that was copyrighted
    How much of the work was copied? There’s a difference in directly copying all the material and transforming part of it.
  • The effect of the copyrighted work’s market value
    Does the copied material affect the market value of the original copyrighted work? If you’re selling a shirt with a Batman print it could arguably deter people from buying original merchandise, which would likely not be considered fair.

Essentially, merchandise may be exempted from copyright infringement under the Fair Use Act, but it depends entirely on the specific situation. More often than not, though, transforming or using someone else’s work for profit doesn’t constitute fair use. It’s all determined on a case-by-case basis.

Better Safe than Sorry

It’s always best to err on the side of caution when it comes to copyright. Here are some things you can do to make sure you’re not breaking any copyright laws:

  • Avoid using copyrighted material
    This is a no-brainer – don’t use material that’s copyrighted. Either use work that’s under public domain or create original designs. And if you’re not sure if your idea complies with copyright law, it might be best to leave it, or speak to an attorney.
  • Check copyright records
    If you’re unsure about whether something has copyright, check the US Copyright Records here.
  • Get permission
    Obtain permission from the creator to use copyrighted material.
  • Consult a legal professional
    This is always a good idea – a copyright attorney is your best resource for figuring out what you need to do for your specific circumstances.

I recommend to always play it safe. Avoid potentially copyrighted material altogether, and if you really want to move forward with an idea, do your research to make sure you’re not breaking any laws.

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  1. Nathan Donahoe

    Thank you Nora for excellent copyright blog. As digital entrepreneurs, it is important to respect the rights of other artists. Question: I noticed you didn’t mention anything about trademarks and service marks. Do the same rules for “Copyright 101” apply to them when printing through Printful?

    1. Nora Inveiss Post author

      Thanks for your question; it’s definitely something I’ll look into. In the meantime, Matt B. left a comment below that you might find helpful.

  2. Matt B.

    As a Trademark owner for designs mostly used on T-shirts and other apparel, I can say that yes – most of this applies to Trademarks as well. However, if it’s a trademark word (do a search at USPTO.gov for any word or phrase you are concerned about) check to see if the Trademark is “LIVE” first. If the trademark is not live, consider how close your design matches anything they have put out.

    One example is the “home” state t-shirts, to my knowledge they are not currently Trademarked, because it would cost approx $800 x 50 states = $40,000 to try to trademark them all, and many of them could be contested by others who can prove they’ve used a form of “home” in their state outline much longer than the recent, trending designs were introduced, and the money spent to register the trademark is now gone with the wind.

    This brings everything back to the Copywright 101 discussion and basic design ethics – if your design contains work protected under US Copyright law, or looks similar to something that is listed as trademarked under the USPTO.gov site, AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS without first consulting the copyright or trademark owner for permission. I have worked with 3 licensees who’s designs I felt were high quality and did not impede on my own design’s intended audience or defame my trademark – so some C/TM owners are willing to work with you, and most of the time it’s an agreement for very little to no royalty with guidelines on how you can use, market and approve any new work containing the infringing mark or design.

    Hope that helped.

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