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Beginner's handbook

Can I Print That? Copyright and Trademark 101

By Reading Time: 7 minutes

Let’s say you just heard an incredible song and you loved it so much that you want to print a t-shirt with the lyrics on it right away. You start preparing your print files, but then you’re struck with an important question: am I breaking any laws?

We get a lot of questions from customers about intellectual property, specifically—printing copyrighted and trademarked materials. Usually, a customer has 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 rules to help figure that out.

Copyrights and trademarks are territorial. Unless you sell your goods to the US customers only, you should take into account other jurisdictions you target your goods at as well.

Before I continue, I’d like to point out that you are solely responsible for the content that you post and Printful doesn’t assume liability for copyright and trademark infringements. And this blog post should not serve as legal advice—consulting a copyright or trademark attorney is always the best route if you have questions about your products and intellectual property law.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) is a category of property that deals with creations of the human mind. Literary and artistic works, inventions, designs, symbols, names, and images used in commerce are all examples of intellectual property.

The reason intellectual property protection is so crucial is that it allows the rightful owner or author to reap the full benefits of their invention or artwork. If you’re an artist who makes a living with your work, you can imagine how devastating it is to have your artwork stolen and reproduced.

The most well-known types of intellectual property are copyright, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. Let’s take a closer look at copyright and trademarks since this is the main type of IP that needs to be considered when creating designs for your print-on-demand products.

Copyright is a type of intellectual property geared toward literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from paintings, photographs, books, music, videos to technical drawings, maps, advertisements, software, databases, etc.

This photo is Printful’s intellectual property and is protected by copyright

A trademark is a type of intellectual property geared toward items that help define a brand, such as company name, logo, or symbols, and that help distinguish one entity from another.

The Champion logo is Champion’s intellectual property and is protected by trademark

For example, Printful would copyright photos and videos it created, and trademark its name and logo.

Defending copyright is different from defending a trademark. If you require legal advice on a copyright or trademark issue, make sure the attorney you choose understands your needs.

The term “copyright” is also its meaning: the author’s right to the copy of their work. In this context, a copy is a reproduction of any visual, written, or audible piece of intellectual property—anything written, photographed, drawn, painted, etc.

The US enacted its first copyright law in 1790. The US copyright law currently in effect was rewritten in 1976 and has been amended several times. This law defends the monetary value of artwork and inventions, and grants authors and artists these rights, among others:

  • to make and sell copies of their works, 
  • to create derivative works,
  • to perform or display their works to the public.

Note that the law doesn’t defend ideas that are still in the creator’s mind. The work must be original and exist in a physical form (e.g. paper, film, or recording). 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 (definitions of what “published” means varies).

For works first published before March 1, 1989, the copyright owner was required to place a written notice on all publicly distributed copies of their work. A copyright notice is a short line of text that lets the public know that the work is protected by copyright law and is not to be copied. This notice is no longer necessary, but it’s best to have it in case the creator needs to defend their intellectual property in court.

The rule of thumb is to never use copyrighted or trademarked material without the permission of their owner, but, as always, there are exceptions, and this is where the Fair Use doctrine comes into play.

The Fair Use doctrine

These four factors determine whether fair use applies to a case:

  • The purpose and character of the use of the copyrighted material. It’s usually acceptable to use copyrighted material for educational purposes, research, parody, or commentary. However, it will likely not be considered fair if it’s for commercial gain.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work. The more creative the work, the more heavily it’s protected under copyright. Statistics and facts aren’t protected under copyright and can be used without permission if you cite the source. The creation of artwork, novels, songs, poems, movies, or songs involves a lot more creative effort, and copying this type of material is less likely to support a claim of fair use than using a factual work.
  • The amount of work that was copied. How much of the copyrighted work was used in a given case?
  • The effect of use on the potential market or value of the copyrighted work. If you’re selling a shirt with a Batman print, it could keep people from buying original merchandise, which would likely not be considered fair use.

There can be cases that wouldn’t qualify as copyright infringement under the Fair Use doctrine, but it depends entirely on the situation.

More often than not, transforming or using someone else’s work without getting a license doesn’t constitute fair use.

Copyright and trademarks are subject to a time limit.

The term of a US federal trademark is 10 years, with 10-year renewal terms. To confirm that the mark is in use, you have to file a proof between the 5th and 6th year of registration.

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 January 1, 1924, is in the public domain, meaning it’s not protected by copyright. 
  • Works published between 1925 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 their death. After that, the creative work generally passes into what’s called the public domain.

Public domain works

Example of public domain artwork. Indian peafowl (Pavo Cristatus) illustrated by Charles Dessalines D’ Orbigny (1806-1876). Digitally enhanced by rawpixel

Public domain refers to creative works that are not protected by copyright, so anyone can use them in any way they’d like (while attributing the source or author of the work), including reselling or using the material to create new or updated versions without permission from the owners nor compensating them.

Please be aware that stock images may not always be free for commercial use even if the website says so. This is because anyone can upload any content to these platforms. That being said, there’s no proof whether the rightful owner of the intellectual property has authorized the third party to upload their content to these platforms and assign the “free for commercial status” for these images.

Better safe than sorry

It’s always best to err on the side of caution when it comes to copyright. When in doubt, assume that the artwork is subject to copyright. 

Here are some things you can do to make sure you’re not breaking the law:

Avoid using trademarks or copyrighted material. This is a no-brainer—don’t use trademarks or material that’s copyrighted. Create original designs or use artwork from the public domain. And if you’re not sure if your idea complies with copyright or trademark law, it might be best to leave it, or speak to an attorney.

Check copyright and trademark records. If you’re unsure about whether something is copyrighted or has been registered as a trademark, check the U.S. Copyright Records and the USPTO’s trademark database.

Get permission from the owner. Get a written permission from the creator to use the copyrighted material or trademark.

Consult a legal professional. A copyright or trademark attorney is your best resource for figuring out what you need to do in your circumstances.

Make sure to go through Printful’s Acceptable Content Guidelines, too. Note that at any time Printful may review and remove content that is hateful, illegal, and that violates intellectual property rights.

Can I print a copyrighted picture for personal use?

You can’t legally use someone else’s intellectual property without getting permission. Any reproduction of copyrighted material is considered a violation.

How to get permission to print copyrighted material?

1. Find out who the owner is.
2. Find out what rights you need.
3. Get in touch with the owner and ask if they need payment.
4. Get your permission in writing.

How to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts?

You need to either own the content you submit to your POD provider, or have the licence to use, display, and resell it.

What happens if someone breaks the copyright or trademark law?

It all depends on the details of the infringement and the actions of the copyright holder or the trademark owner. Penalties range from receiving a sternly worded letter to time in jail.

What do I do if I want to use someone’s trademark?

You need to get permission from the owner and a license. If the owner gives you permission to use their trademark, you may have to sign a licensing agreement specifying the terms of any commercial and noncommercial use, as well as pay them a licensing fee.

Are there any circumstances that allow me to use a trademark without the owner’s permission?

You must always ask the trademark owner permission to use it unless you use the mark for:
– informational or editorial purposes to identify specific products and services, or
– if you plan to use it to provide an honest comparison of products.

Are famous quotes copyrighted?

Quotes are also considered intellectual property. According to the US copyright law, the legal rights to a quote belong by default to its author (or speaker).

Can I use copyrighted material if I give credit?

No, giving credit does not excuse you from copyright infringement.
However, if you’re legally using someone else’s material, you should always cite the original source to avoid plagiarism.

Can I sell t-shirts with famous quotes?

If the famous quotes are from creative works that have passed into public domain, you can create designs with them.
If they’re not in the public domain, you must get a licence for commercial use.

When can I use copyrighted material?

You can use copyrighted material when you have received the author’s permission and signed a licensing agreement to get the license.

What can I do to protect my own artwork or logo for my brand?

In the US, you can copyright artwork by registering it with the US Copyright Office. You can register a trademark for your logo by submitting an application to US Patent and Trademark Office.

Am I allowed to use Printful’s clipart from the Design tab?

Clipart is Printful’s intellectual property. It’s allowed to use our clipart for commercial and non-commercial use as long as you use it on Printful’s products. See Section 4F in Printful’s Policies for more information.

Madara is a content marketer for the Printful Blog. Her background in linguistics and belief in the power of SEO come in handy when she’s creating content that inspires ecommerce store owners and helps them grow their business.

Comments

  1. Michael Barbeau

    I own a product Casting company that custom makes different items. What if a customer comes in and wants me to put his favorite football team on his item. Is that legal for me to do. He’s not selling it, he is putting it in his sports room.

  2. Casey

    Hi,
    I purchased an original signed drawing at a thrift store. The artist is dead now but had previously created art for Expo 86. I believe I might have the original concept / submission that one of Expo 86 posters is based on. Can I copyright the image and make prints?

    1. Edward Zarins

      Hey, Casey, thank you for your comment but we recommend reaching out to a professional with any copyright questions. If you have questions to our Acceptable Content Team, you can email us at [email protected]

  3. Robert Banks

    Is and item with the word “Fuck” allowable. Because 2020 was a year unlike no other; pandemic, protests, violence. and political turmoil, I created a series.”2020 What the Fuck”. on some the “K” is inverted (flipped) so technically it is not the same. I have seen the word prominently displayed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other POD items on Etsy, Rebubble. I am new to Printful and would not want to start my relationship by getting banned. And while we’re at it, how about “Hell” and “Damn?”

    1. Alise Zindiga

      In general, we do print designs with profanity, however, it depends on the context. Your example is acceptable, but if these words are used to express hatred towards or attacks on any person, group, and/or their protected characteristics (such as but not limited to age, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability), we won’t tolerate that. You can learn more about our Acceptable Content Guidelines over here > https://www.printful.com/policies/content-guidelines

  4. Alex

    Yo,
    Can i use album names on my shirts? Like dua lipa, “future nostalgia” or steve aoki “neon future”? They are basically just two words put together and its not really a name you can own right?

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, Alex, keep in mind that album names or just about any phrase can be trademarked. You have to check that before using these words on your products. It’s best to consult a copyright or trademark attorney before creating such designs.

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, Ron, that is a trademarked brand and you can’t use their logo in your designs without permission from the brand.

        1. Alise Zindiga

          Hey, Amanda, you should still make sure that the brand approves this. If you’re using just the word, not a full logo, check if that’s not trademarked. In general, it’s always best to consult a copyright or trademark attorney.

  5. John

    If the author of a book gives consent to freely download a preprint, it is also legal to then print out that preprint in its entirety?

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, John, each case has to be viewed separately. It depends on what permission the author has granted, but having the possibility to download a book for free, doesn’t allow you to reprint and use it for commercial purposes.

  6. Sam

    Hello – I am looking to print my own copyright protected logo on a blank shirt, and sell it via dropship to customers commercially. The blank shirt happens to have a champion logo on the sleeve. Is it legal to sell the shirt with my logo, despite it having the champion logo on the sleeve?

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, Sam! It’s possible to use your own logo on a product with the Champion logo as long as it follows this rule:
      The decoration of any Champion® garment with the proprietary marks, names, or logos of any collegiate sports teams or collegiate institution is expressly prohibited. Copyright 2018 Hanesbrands Inc. All rights reserved.

  7. Stefano

    Ho preso una foto di Michael Jordan e da lì ho creato un artwork completamente rimodellato da me eliminando anche il logo di air Jordan che era presente.
    Posso utilizzarlo se è un lavoro creato da me pur raffigurando un personaggio famoso? (La foto è di spalle e si legge “Jordan” sulla maglietta)

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, Stefano, our advice is to always consult with a copyright or trademark attorney. A professional will check your artwork and do the necessary research as it depends on the celebrity in your art. It’s legal to represent some famous people in your artwork, but it’s not the case with everyone.

  8. MC

    Hi there!

    I am participating in the 75 hard challenge and once my friends and I finish, I wanted to make us shirts that say “75 hard fit babes”. It is just being made for my friends and I. I would not be going through a company to have them made nor will I sell them for profit. Would I be breaking the law? Technically, 75 hard is trademarked but I’m combining it with fit babes. So I wasn’t sure if this still violates anything.

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