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How Do I Copyright a T-shirt?

Someone who creates original artwork for a t-shirt is automatically protected by copyright law.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2014
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If you want to copyright a t-shirt or a specific part of a t-shirt design, then you should be aware of how copyright works and how it can relate to different elements you may have on a shirt. Any original artwork that you wish to feature on a t-shirt is already protected by copyright law and you own the copyright on it by virtue of creating it. You cannot copyright an idea for a t-shirt, since ideas cannot be protected by copyright, nor can you copyright a method for creating or printing t-shirts. While you can copyright an image of a t-shirt, you should use a trademark or service mark to protect a logo you may want to print on the t-shirt.

International copyright law provides protection for works of art and artistic creations. This copyright protection exists at the moment a work is created, and so you can copyright a t-shirt design simply by creating the image on the shirt. If you want to produce a t-shirt featuring a piece of art that is an original creation by you, then you need only create that artwork and you own the copyright on it. You may want to register a copyright for an image to have greater protection, and this can be done through a government or private agency in your country.

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You cannot copyright a t-shirt idea, however, since ideas are not protected under copyright law. Copyright law will also not protect a vague or general design for a t-shirt, such as the idea of having white text printed on a black t-shirt. You also cannot copyright the t-shirt printing process, since this would be protected by a patent. Contact a patent office in your country for more information on this process. Only original works of art and artistic creations can be protected by a copyright.

If you want to copyright a t-shirt that includes a business logo, then you should register that logo as a trademark or service mark. Copyright protection only extends to artistic works, and anything that represents your business would need to be protected under trademark law. You should include a trademark indicator such as ™ and register your trademark with the appropriate government agency for the country in which you live. If you live in the US, for example, then you can copyright a t-shirt's art and officially register that copyright with the US Copyright Office, and trademark a business logo with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

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Discuss this Article

lonelygod
Post 7

It really seems outlandish to me to have to pay to copyright an image on a t-shirt if you already have the basic rights just from creating it. Unless you are making a lot of cash off your artwork I wouldn't really worry about paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to get your image in the books.

For anyone who is famous enough that there is a chance that their artwork may be copied and sold, I think that the laws concerning intellectual property are already in place to protect your work. In places that don't respect copyright in the first place there isn't much you can do about it anyways.

drtroubles
Post 6

There is such a thing as a poor man's copyright if you are really concerned about copyrighting your artistic idea. All you need to do as mail your art to yourself and leave it in the sealed envelope that has the date stamp on it.

While this technique has been used for years by writers who were too poor to be able to actually register their works with the proper authorities there has been a lot of argument whether or not this actually works.

I personally believe that if it gives you piece of mind that you should do it. If you really think you have something special to protect, pay the fees and register.

Potterspop
Post 5

@Windchime - It sounds like you have a promising small or side business opportunity. Having satisfied customers who advertise your product is a great way to build your brand.

One way you could move forward is to upload your designs onto a site targeting people who want to make a shirt online.

It's really simple. You offer your ideas and if a customer chooses it you get a commission. I have been doing this for years, and I make a decent residual income this way. If I was more serious I could make a lot more, maybe even live of it.

You may still be concerned about copyright, but I have never paid to register my T-shirt designs. As far as I know the major search engines favor the original entry onto their databases. So if someone stole your idea and tried to market it they wouldn't get such good results in searches.

lluviaporos
Post 4

@indigomoth - In my experience companies tend to do better if they have a brand that works, and caters to a particular type of person. I don't think there is a particular slogan that is worth protecting, but a style of artwork certainly is.

I know a couple of people who sell t-shirts based around their comic. I don't think the phrases they put on them are particularly clever, but they are from the comic and that's what makes them sell.

They don't have to worry about people ripping off the slogans because it would be beside the point to own a shirt with that slogan that wasn't from the comic.

indigomoth
Post 3

I think in most cases it probably isn't worth trying to register your t-shirt slogan as a logo. I know a lot of t-shirt making companies are quite small and make custom shirts on a print on demand basis. I think it would cost a bit and take a lot of time to register, and I don't think you would benefit a lot from it.

On the other hand, if you create the phrase you want to use in conjunction with a unique font and artwork, it would already be considered to be your intellectual property.

So, that would seem like the way to go.

Windchime
Post 2

@Penzance356 - Your business sounds great. I'd love to get into something similar at some point.

Right now I just mess around a little, experimenting with designs for printed T-shirts for friends and family. I don't use any machinery, so each batch is a fairly intensive labor of love.

My creations get a lot of attention and praise, but I can't see how I'll ever be able to take the next step, and turn this into an actual profitable business.

After reading this Wisegeek article I understand the way copyright of T-shirts works, but actually enforcing the rules seems like a difficult, if not impossible task.

Penzance356
Post 1

I run a small business designing and making various items of clothing and accessories. One of our specialities is screen printing shirts, and I try to use the work of local artists as much as possible.

They often ask me about how to get a copyright for their logo or design, which leads to an indepth discussion on the subject.

Now I can send them a link to this article, and save myself having to repeat the same thing each time. I've also learned something, as I had no idea a company logo would need to be trademarked.

That's an area I'd like to expand into in the future, so it's good to know there's a difference between that and copyright.

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