There are a few underlying ‘laws’ in our industry that newcomers should be made aware of. Copyrights, Registered Copyrights, and Trademarks are to be honored. Understand that people have poured their blood sweat and tears into a unique brand. They may have invested decades and worked very hard to establish a small corner-niche in a specific market. Also understand that those with money and power will not tolerate any small chance of subtraction from their profit margins. Either way, it will ultimately come down to what lawyers and/or judges determine. So, the question here is really: “How likely am I to be sued” also, “How much will they sue me for?”, and “How far will they pursue me?” If the company is Disney, Harley Davidson, or Starbucks, the answers are, “Inevitable, ALL of the money,” and “To the ends of the earth.”
I must insert into this article what should be considered an obvious statement: I am not an attorney. Any and all information herein is purely opinion and is to be understood only as casual advice. I spent more time researching that one sentence than I did writing this entire article.
Do not duplicate, rip-off, or in most cases even mimic any protected brand, character, or likeness in any way that could possibly make you money. Even the act of printing yourself one shirt with a favorite Copy-write Protected character on it, but then mentioning to people that you print shirts for a living, could result in litigation against you.
Though It is legal to print yourself apparel with any graphic or statement you’d like on it and the artwork there-on would (should) be protected by the First Amendment, problems could arise if you benefit financially in any way from such artwork. If you make a dollar from printing Mickey Mouse © All rights reserved, Trademarked 2019, on a tee-shirt, - don’t be surprised if Disney ends up owning your print shop and putting a lean on the kidney of your first born child …after they bankrupt you in court.
I used to tell my clients that I would happily print, for my own personal and not commercial use, apparel with specific copyrighted images on them. It was later pointed out to me, by an attorney, that by simply stating that fact while wearing the shirt could be argued that I benefit financially. Also, slander laws may be in play with my mentioning any specific brand… It would be extremely difficult to argue, but is it worth the risk? If someone saw me with a shirt on, assumed that I designed/re-designed it myself, and then decided to purchase something from me… ut oh! So, needless to say, I don’t even wear any re-created art. Plus technically, I could be walking the line with this article itself.
A company owning an image must take some sort of reasonable steps to protect their art, logo, verbiage, etc if they want it protected. If, for example, a high school posts their new mascot online and encourages new quotes for sports-apparel, then it is a given that you can copy/paste their logo to produce that proposal.
Getting “express written permission” is a real thing. If you’re worried, have someone of authority with the company you’re working with sign, or simply state in an email, that you are allowed to use their image or text etc. for certain purposes.
Putting a statement in your proposal forms can help protect you as well. Mention that by accepting this quote the person in consideration is giving consent for your use of the artwork and/or verbiage.
Really getting in trouble comes down to a few specific factors. First, you have to be caught. Second, they have to send you notice. Third, they have to show how either they, or their brand, was damaged, or how you benefited from their (sometimes intellectual) property. Then the court has to agree with them… On second thought, I take it all that back. All it takes is for you to get caught, and for them to throw money at lawyers until you are broken.
Keep in mind. All of the above, and I do mean all, is completely irrelevant if someone throws enough money at the argument. Disney, for example, has the power to hold up any seemingly frivolous lawsuit in the courts indefinitely. This means nearly limitless spending. Plus, Disney has stated openly many times that they will pursue any abuse of their materials as they see it. There’s a level of political and courtroom power that comes with such large companies. Litigation to these multi-national, near-monopoly, billion+$ corporations is just part of the equation. Consider their ability to own their own law firms, plural.
So next time someone wants you to print a shirt under the sea and you think it means no worries, remember it’s a whole new world and just let it go. Don’t mess with The Mouse!
*All ideas expressed in this post are the exclusively those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the policies or opinions of Decorated Apparel Magazine. The author represents that he or she is exclusively responsible for the content contained, and that he or she is the owner of any intellectual property used or expressed, and has the right to publish any statements or images contained herein. All content is offered 'as-is' and Decorated Apparel Magazine does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of any statements contained in this or any other post. Your use of any advice or statements of fact or opinion offered are completely at your own risk.