Imagine yourself being the owner of a successful t-shirt design business, and you’re selling out fast because everyone in your town is digging your designs. And then one day, a lawsuit dropped on your doorstep. Your empire has been threatened, and you have no idea what this is all about. You sought advice from your lawyer and you learned that you have been accused of copyright infringement. All those efforts, all those late-night internet browsing, your invested money, the reputation you’ve built – wasted.
But don’t worry. That was just your imagination.
But wouldn’t it be upsetting, though? To see everything gone with a snap of a finger, all because of a colossal error of copying someone else’s design.
Before getting involved in businesses with design, you should familiarize yourself first with the contexts of these industries. One of which is the copyright.
Copyright is a legal means of protecting a creator’s work for a certain amount of time. These works could be in the form of literary, artistic, educational, or musical. Aside from the creator, no one else is entitled to reproduce and distribute the creator’s work without his/her consent. This means that if you replicate or imitate a designer’s work and got caught, prepare yourself for a trip to the courthouse - and your bank accounts to be emptied - because you are definitely in a huge trouble.
Knowing your rights as the original owner of the design, as well as the rules so as not to get tangled in these kinds of lawsuit is paramount. So, going back to the scenario, let’s breakdown the rules on how to incorporate a copyright of your designs for the t-shirt business.
Copyright on designs has been automatic since 1978 upon publication according to the Copyright law of the United States. However, you will need to register the rights to your design to let the public know that you, indeed, own the design.
• Your design should be represented in a tangible way in order to be eligible for copyright protection. Moreover, it should be original. You can’t just trace Mickey Mouse’s head, add glitters on it, and then register it as your own.
• As mentioned, you cannot copy nor make something that resembles a cartoon character, an anime, logos of institutions, companies, sports teams, a celebrity, and so on.
• You cannot quote an author who is still alive and use it as a design for your t-shirt. If you wish to incorporate quotations from books, find out first if the author has been deceased within the number of years that the United States Copyright Office has declared, since their copyrights are most likely expired.
• Common phrases, titles, names, movie lines such as “I am your father”, or idiomatic expressions are not protected by the intellectual property law. But in some cases, short phrases used as a commercial slogan are under the trademark law, and therefore cannot be reused.
• Flags and other political figures are safe to use since they are not copyrighted according to the modern intellectual property law.
• If you would like to use a design that you have seen on the internet, make sure that the design is from the public domain since this is not protected by the intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, and patent. Materials from the public domain can be obtained without anyone’s permission, but no one can ever claim ownership over it. However, it is still imperative to check if the design you get from the public domain is not copyrighted.
But how does one know if the design is copyrighted?
One of the most prominent indications of a copyrighted design is the presence of the symbol © which usually can be found at a corner of the design. In some cases, creators don’t bother adding the symbol anymore, since they have registered their designs and are confident enough to sue for statutory damages in case someone steals or replicates their designs.
In the event that you are unlucky enough to be a victim of copyright infringement, here are some possible course of actions to take against the offender.
Identify first if the work is indeed a straight up copy of your work. There are some cases where the court may rule the other party’s work as “derivative work”, and this will have a major impact on your plan as the defender. If you fail to produce strong evidence against the person, he/she might instill the fair use doctrine. This will lead to a longer process with the jury.
• If you are a hundred percent sure that your work has been illegally replicated, now is the time to send a cease and desist letter to notify the person of your claiming rights and to demand the immediate termination of the illegal usage of your work. This could also be a means for you to demand for lost profits and attorney’s fees. If the person doesn’t comply with your demands, you can file a lawsuit against him.
• Filing a lawsuit could be complicated. It will be expensive, and the time and effort that you have to spend on this is no joke. But if you choose to pursue, your lawyer will work around the settlement that will compensate you for all the damages.
Familiarizing yourself with the basic rules of copyright might sound a bit intimidating, but this will surely benefit you once you decide to continue pursuing a business that involves designs such as t-shirt design making. Just keep in mind to check all the aspects and consult with a lawyer to make sure that you will have a smooth operation and avoid any unwanted dilemma such as copyright infringement.
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