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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 the 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.


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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. Mark Weishaar

    If I took a published magazine photo of a bicycle race, then created a caricature of it does that become original art or am I still subject to copyright of just a published photo. Thanks Mark Weishaar

    1. Katherine Karklina

      Hi, Mark! Judging from the info you’ve provided, it can still be subject to copyright depending on how transformative your design is. You can send it to [email protected] for a review if you’re planning on using it with us. 😊

  2. J E SEITZ

    Can we use photos that are from Creative Common?
    I used pics and gave credit to the .com on my store listing, as requested by the .com, but Printful won’t print the design.
    Thanks!!

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey! I won’t be able to fully comment about using work from Creative Common, I’m afraid. Before proceeding, make sure that it’s okay to use their photos for commercial gain. If it’s okay and all according to their policy, please reach out to our Customer Support and provide them with the necessary information to remove your orders from hold. The email is [email protected] but live chat on our website is also available.

  3. Martin

    Hi, thank you for sharing this amazing post!

    I do have a question:
    For example – if I wanted to print famous people quotes on posters: “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” / Steve Jobs /
    I wouldn’t use any graphic material like images, just the text itself and some graphic elements which I would create. Would I be infringing on Steve Jobs Intellectual Property?

    Thank you!

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Martin! I’m glad you enjoyed this article!
      To answer your question, quotes are also considered intellectual property. According to the US copyright law, the legal rights to a quote belong by default to its author. However, if the quote in question is from creative works that have passed into the public domain, you can create designs with them, but if they’re not then you must get a license for commercial use. Hope this helps!

  4. Jhon

    I was looking for ideas on Copyright and Trademark 101 and I found your post on Google. This post is informative and helpful for me, thanks for writing this.

  5. Cyril Figgis

    Hello!

    I notice most of these custom apparel sites assume one is going to create custom apparel and sell it or use it for their company, what about customers who just want to make custom apparel for themselves? Is it copyright infringement if I make a design of a famous fictional character and order it on a t-shirt? Is wearing it copyright infringement, or is it the act of ordering a shirt with a design that did not originate from the customer?

    Thank you!

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Cyril!
      Even if our customer wants to create custom apparel only for themselves, we still can’t accept orders if they contain copyrighted or trademarked material as it violates a third party’s intellectual property. Unless you or your supplier carries a license or an agreement that allows the use of such content, I’d suggest avoiding it altogether.

  6. Alicia owens

    It’s uncertain if the first amendment offers an extra right beyond the theory of fair use to create unauthorised copies of protected works. While some commentators have claimed that there is a different defence to copyright infringement, courts have not agreed. Instead, courts have held that the fair use concept combined with the fact that copyright does not restrict the copying of facts and ideas safeguards society’s interest in free expression.

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