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Can T-Shirt designs be copyrighted?

Have you got the perfect idea for a custom t-shirt design, but you’re worried about copycats stealing your style?

Then it's time for you to learn about the world of copyright and how you can use it to your advantage. We've broken down all the essential information we think you should know about copyright laws.

From what copyright is to how you can use it to protect your original t-shirt designs, this is the perfect guide for small businesses and individuals looking to get started on putting their ideas out there.

What is copyright?

Copyright exists as a legal right of creators to control who can use their work. The law applies to various artistic outlets, including print, photographs, audio recording and clothing. The primary purpose of the law is to encourage the creation of original work and is officially protected in human rights law.

Take away copyright, and there is no real reason to create outstanding works of art or literature.

If anyone can adapt and make money from your ideas, it would be easy to manipulate and take advantage of artists. So, in the interest of broader cultural development, copyright is taken incredibly seriously by legal institutions worldwide. 

Can custom t-shirt designs be copyrighted in the UK?

According to UK law, copyright protection is automatically instated in any original, authored work. From the moment of creation and fixation, copyright protection exists.

If you're creating new designs for your t-shirt business, it's essential to consider how copyrights and trademarks might affect the way you trade. Whether it concerns other traders using your designs or whether you might be illegally using other people's work, getting to grips with the information surrounding intellectual property is a smart move.

Below you can find the main differences between copyrights and trademarks and how you can keep your print apparel business on the right side of the law.

What does copyright protect?

UK copyright laws provide security for any creators works. This includes any original creation that profit might potentially reproduce.

You can copyright any work that you can create, published or unpublished. It's not always necessary to register a claim legally; however, it may be better to document your creations for added security in some cases.

What are the consequences of reproducing copyrighted work?

Using copyrighted works without permission risks the potential for legal prosecution. In the UK, copyright holders are entitled to seek damages for authorised use.

In real terms, this means that if you sell an unauthorised t-shirt ten times, the copyright holder can file ten claims against you. Therefore, using copyrighted material is highly unadvised.

It is better to be over-cautious when dealing with other peoples work. If you are working on a parody of a brand, perhaps in the style of Banksy, it's a good idea to consult a legal professional before advancing with a print.

What are Trademarks?

Legally registering your trademark is required when your work is recognisable by a broad audience.

Owning a brand is almost the same as copyright. However, it is more specific to protect a product or company's name, symbol, or image. Naturally, this applies to logos, brand names, songs, books, and movie names; it can even cover TV or film characters.

Trademarks must be recognisable, and they must be registered. As you can imagine, this is a potentially expensive process. Also, to maintain a brand, it's necessary to enforce it.

In the past, trademarks have been revoked when businesses have allowed their misuse. This makes it risky to infringe on someone else's brand as the owner is bound to state a claim against you.

What About Works in the Public Domain?

Copyright exists to protect creators. But as governments don't want to commercialise every aspect of our culture, they have what is known as ‘public domain’.

Works in the public domain are free for anyone to use and sell at free will. Nobody can perform a play or sing a song without paying royalty fees without 'public domain'.

Legalities around the public domain are complications. Therefore, it's advisable to consult a professional before printing a run of tees.

Find out more

We hope that you now have a good idea of copyright law and how it affects your original t-shirt designs. So, if you‘re ready to start bringing your ideas to life, don’t hesitate to choose your ideal garments and find out more about our custom t-shirt printing service.

For more information about protecting your designs, visit our extensive Content Hub, where you'll find a range of related articles offering more advice.