Copyright Guidelines for Graphic Designers

One of our favorite things about working at GotPrint is admiring all the creative and fun designs that customers submit on a daily basis. Occasionally, however, we come across orders in which copyrighted material or trademarks are being used without permission.

As a general rule of thumb, you should avoid using or reproducing artwork, logos or slogans if you do not own the copyright or trademark. You may already know that you can’t take Nike’s logo off its website and print it on a T-shirt, but even recreating the Swoosh, even if it’s technically your own artwork, and printing it on merchandise is not recommended.

That said, we know there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to copyright law. We’ve put together a basic overview to help designers distinguish what we can and can’t print when it comes to your files. (Please note that this post is for informational purposes only. If you have specific questions regarding your designs, please consult an attorney.)

What Should You Avoid?

Unauthorized Merchandise

Ordering a custom banner or shirt may seem like a natural way to display your love for your university or a local sports team. However, printing a trademarked logo, motto or slogan onto unofficial merchandise is not only illegal, it is unfair to the organization you’re trying to support.

Movie Quotes / Song Lyrics

Movie quotes and song lyrics can have a lot of personal meaning, so it’s understandable that you may want to print them onto shirts, mugs, and wall prints. However, most of these quotes and lyrics (along with other creative material such as book excerpts and cartoon characters) fall under the creators’ protected intellectual property. (There are a few exceptions, which we will discuss below.)

Celebrity Photos

Printing celebrity portraits onto posters and apparel may seem like an obvious way to make some extra cash. However, images that you find online fall under the original photographers’ copyright and shouldn’t be used without permission.

If you managed to capture an incredible celebrity photo with your own camera, you may be okay printing a poster or shirt for personal use but not for commercial use. Although copyright law generally protects the photographer, if a person in the image is clearly identifiable, you may be infringing on his or her right of publicity, which gives people the right to control the commercial use of their name and likeness.

Unlicensed Fonts

Before purchasing or downloading a typeface for commercial purposes, review the End User License Agreement to make sure your intended usage is allowed. Using a typeface without the proper license can lead to an expensive legal battle down the road.

If you’re working on a limited budget, there are several resources for free commercial-use fonts, including Font Squirrel.

Derivative Fan Art

Those who create fan art are doing so as tributes to fictional characters and worlds they love. Even so, it remains a controversial art form with some authors embracing it and others denouncing it. Fan art that is clearly derivative of an existing body of work will generally fall under the original creator’s copyright and should not be distributed commercially without the copyright owner’s permission.

So What Can You Print?

Original Work

Once you create an original piece of work (whether literary, visual or musical), you own the copyright and are free to distribute it as you please. Although it’s not required, you may also choose to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office to create a public record of ownership.

The same goes for original logos, symbols and phrases that you create to distinguish your company or brand. These elements typically fall under trademark or service mark (not copyright) protection, and you have the right to print them on business cards, T-shirts, advertising materials, and so forth.

Attribution Required / Royalty Free

Some artists choose to make their work freely available for others to use and/or build upon. Creative Commons, a non-profit organization, even came up with its own set of copyright licenses so creators can indicate the terms under which their works can be distributed. Some Creative Commons licenses just require attribution while others require attribution and forbid commercial use. The most generous Creative Commons licenses allow royalty-free distribution with no attribution required. Two great resources for royalty-free images are Pixabay and Unsplash.

Fair Use Exception

Fair use is one of the most complicated sets of laws governing whether or not someone’s work infringes upon another person’s copyright. Broadly speaking, displaying and/or distributing copyrighted material for criticism/commentary, news reporting, research, and academic purposes is permissible under fair use.1

When it comes to printing merchandise, the most relevant fair use exception may be the concept of parody. Of course, just tweaking an existing work of art slightly and claiming that it’s parody isn’t enough to be protected under copyright law. Should a dispute arise as to whether a derivative work qualifies as parody, a federal court will need to determine whether it is a valid commentary or criticism of the original work.

Public Domain

Earlier in this article, we discussed how most creative material is legally protected intellectual property. The exception to this is any body of work that is considered public domain, either because its copyright has expired, the work is not eligible for copyright protection (e.g. a general compilation of facts such as a list of U.S. presidents), or the creator has deliberately waived all copyright. Cornell University has published an excellent chart that shows when certain types of works come into the public domain. So, if you’ve always wanted to sell custom shirts featuring your favorite quotes from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (first published in 1892), you are in the clear!

“Inspired By” Fan Art

Fan art that is loosely inspired by another person’s work is usually okay to print, as long as there is no likelihood of confusion. For example, if you develop an original superhero and setting that is inspired by Marvel movies, but is not derivative of an existing character or location, you can freely print and distribute your creation – just make sure you don’t include any trademarked terms that you don’t own (such as “Marvel Universe”) on the final product.

[1] Nolo:

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