Copyright in T-Shirt Design: Dos and Don'ts

One of the things a designer and owner of a t-shirt design business should know beforehand is copyright laws. You can unknowingly infringe on someone's copyrights, and you can even be challenged in court. This can create unpleasant situations for you and your business. Therefore, you must follow the copyright rules.

Copyright is about protecting the intellectual property rights of the owner. In other words, only the author has the legal right to copy and reproduce his own work. No one can use anyone's intellectual property without the permission of the owner. Therefore, the creator of the original material has exclusive rights over any use of the content under copyright law.

Considering you are going to open your own t-shirt design store. You should be careful not to copy the designs you sell, especially for funny t-shirts. If found, you could face serious legal consequences. Many designers and shop owners are not fully aware of copyright laws, which eventually proved to be a legal disaster.

As a t-shirt designer, you must be copyrighted so that no other person or organization can illegally use your designs for any commercial activity.

It can be tempting to use an attractive image, shirt quotes, or graphics as part of your design. However, any illegal use can cause you legal trouble later on. Therefore, to avoid such undesirable situations, it is a better approach to be original and stick to the basics. If you are in the US and aim to successfully run a T-shirt design business without legal notice to you of any potential infringement, simply read the United States Copyright Laws* for up-to-date information.

So, as a t-shirt design store owner and designer, you should have details on how useful copyright is to protect your intellectual property. Most importantly, this information will help you stay away from any copyright infringement which is necessary to avoid any legal trouble.

Here's What You Can And Can't Do To Create A Unique T-Shirt Design

Avoid using any external materials. The best approach is to use your creative mind to design an image or figure with the help of a professional designer or t-shirt maker. In this way, you will have a design that is truly your own. This is undoubtedly a creative way to get a design free from any legal issues. But also copyright the design.

Know the difference between copyright and trademark. Many business owners mistakenly consider these two terms the same. A trademark is a symbol, term, and name of a business. On the other hand, copyright is granted for original creative works. These works include paintings, books, movies, songs, choreography, web content, etc.


  1. When creating a t-shirt design, you may not use images, characters, or any figures that resemble anything taken from comics, cartoon networks, movies, video games, and television shows.
  2. Educational institutions, organizations, clubs, sports teams, musical groups, artists, etc. You should not use their logos, names, images.
  3. Avoid using company logos, trademarks, and names.
  4. Do not use any photo, artwork, or caricature of a celebrity. Avoid taking a picture of a celebrity and using it on a t-shirt in your own way. It contains some complex copyright issues. Therefore, avoid it as well.
  5. If you find an attractive graphic or image that is not listed for commercial use or free use, do not use it in your t-shirt design. When someone notices this, you will be in legal trouble. Use on images or graphics that are clearly marked free for commercial use.
  6. Also stay away from Internet images or viral videos that inspire you to include them in your t-shirt design. This is because most of the images have pictures of celebrities.
  7. Do not use any images or graphics you see on social media and search engines to create your own t-shirt.
  8. When it comes to adding some t-shirt quotes to the design, avoid quoting a living author. Especially in the case of a deceased author who died less than 70 years ago, do not cite him.
  9. You should also not cite trademark materials, literary works of art, and corporate slogans.

things to do

  1. You may use royalty-free images for any commercial use, including t-shirt printing.
  2. If you find any images or anything in the public domain, most likely their intellectual property rights have expired. So you can use these images.
  3. When you have to quote in quotation marks on your T-shirt designs, you can quote anything in the public domain.
  4. You can cite authors who have been dead for over 70 years. These types of t-shirt quotes are safe.
  5. You are also legally allowed to quote common sayings and parodies.
  6. You can use national symbols, flags, and likenesses of political figures and coats of arms. These things are not covered by copyright or trademark laws.
  7. If you are creating a parody t-shirt design, you can often use famous characters that are widely recognized by others.
  8. Some sites also offer free photos for commercial use. But the user has to give credit to the owner of the photos. So make sure you follow this principle when using free images. If there is no such legal permission, follow the owner of the photo and try to get a positive response from him.

What is Public Domain?

All these images you see in the public domain can be used for your slogans, quotes, graphics, t-shirt designs without worry. But what exactly is the public domain? If the domain contains creative material that is no longer protected under any copyright law, you may use it without permission. Such content in the public domain is usually donated content or has been lost or copyrighted. So feel free to use whatever you find useful in the domain.

However, this does not mean that content that is in the public domain for free to use will not be subject to future copyright laws. While it is less likely to be copyrighted, you should still check to see if someone has copyrighted it before borrowing such a design or other material.

How To Check Material For Copyright

You should be aware of ways to check whether the material you want to receive is secured under copyright laws.

First, find out if the content you want to use as one of the t-shirt design ideas uses the © symbol. This is the copyright symbol. Somewhere under a picture or any other material, you will find it in beautiful letters.

If you see a watermark, it is copyrighted material and you should avoid using it.

Many owners explicitly mention the ownership note that you should look at the content.

If you are unsure of the copyright of a material, the best way to ensure this is to visit the copyright office. You can also browse copyright files. You can also do a reverse image search online to find its source.

What if Someone Copied Your Design?

If someone is violating your copyrights, you can take legal action against the criminal. You have to take three main steps.

First, make sure you register your original work so you can file an infringement lawsuit. When this happens and someone has copied your design, file an infringement lawsuit against the infringer.

Second, get a temporary restraining order. It is a less costly option. To stop the production, distribution, and sale of your original design work, you must sue to obtain the order, which is a legal tool.

Third, if you are a cash-strapped small business, you should consider applying to a law school that works closely with law students who assist entrepreneurs. Many law schools in the US offer free legal advice to small businesses.

So these are the basic rules you should follow when using images, content, graphics, and similar materials for your t-shirt design and business. Be sure to consider all aspects copyright-related to your business to avoid any legal issues.


When you create a t-shirt design or run your own design business to sell t-shirts, make sure you are not infringing on anyone's copyrights. It's better to double-check your design work to make sure they comply with copyright laws than to face some unpleasant legal issues. While there are many images, symbols, and materials that you can safely incorporate into your design, not all other materials are made available to unauthorized designers.

For United States Copyright Laws, you can click this link and access up-to-date information:

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