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Can Custom T-Shirt Designs Be Copyrighted in the UK?

According to UK law, copyright protection is automatically instated to 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’s concerns around 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 out the main differences between copyrights and trademarks, and how you can keep your print apparel business on the right side of the law.

What is Copyright?

Copyright exists as a legal right of creators to control who can use their work. The law applies to a wide range of artistic outlets including print, photograph, audio recording and clothing. 

The main 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 just adopt and make money from your ideas it would be easy to manipulate and take advantage of artists. In the interest of wider cultural development copyright is taken incredibly seriously by legal institutions around the world. 

What Does Copyright Protect?

UK copyright laws provide security for any creator’s “works”. This includes any original creation that might be potentially reproduced for profit. 

You can copyright any work that you create, published or unpublished.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

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. 

What are the Consequences for 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 unauthorized use. In real terms, this means that if you sell an unauthorized t-shirt ten times, the copyright holder can file ten claims against you. 

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 recognizable by a wide audience. 

Owning a trademark is almost the same as copyright, however, it is more specific to specifically protect a name, symbol, or image that belongs to a product or company. Naturally, this applies to logos, brand names, song, book and movie names it can even cover even TV or film characters. 

Trademarks must be recognizable, and they must be registered. As you can imagine this is a potentially expensive process. Also, to maintain a trademark, 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 trademark 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. Without ‘public domain’, nobody can perform a play or sing a song without paying royalty fees.

Legalities around the public domain are complicated. It’s advisable to consult a professional before printing a run of tees. 

For more information about protecting your designs and T-Shirt Printing visit our Content Hub where you’ll find a range of articles.