This article has been updated 7/26/2022
You’re wondering if you can include a catchy quote on your latest t-shirt design. Addressing copyright and trademark usage when it comes to printed apparel is a very ambiguous subject that gives plenty of designers and their apparel printers cause to pause and ponder.
In a nutshell, it depends. We’ll address the different scenarios that impact whether you can use quotes in your t-shirt design whether for personal use or reselling for a profit.
One of the first things to understand when it comes to anything that can be defined as intellectual property is that even if it’s for the personal use of one of our customers, we cannot print anything that would fall under trademark or copyright protection. The reason for this limitation is because we make money from our services. That is often a point of confusion for our users when they don’t intend to use the end product for any commercial purpose. If a transaction exists that benefits a party, monetarily, it will come at the cost of the party holding the protection for their work. Let’s talk about the types of legal protection of various works.
What is Intellectual property? “Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind: inventions; literary and artistic works; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.” Intellectual property rights were first introduced in the late 19th century to address the international issue of rights to profit from productions of the aforementioned kind but also to limit the extent to which these creations could be covered.
It is outlined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization. Without these protections and structured limitations, the world would be a less creative space.
Trademark, service mark, and copyright are synonymous to many people but this perception is incorrect. Each is actually referring to different designations. A trademark is used to identify goods as being produced by a specific entity while a service mark refers to a service being provided like screen printing or apparel manufacturing. Copyright protects artistic creation like novels, songs, and movies.
The trademark would protect the product; the copyright would protect the media that is used to promote the product such as slogans, although a slogan can also fall under trademark. Furthermore a trademark can be established by common law if the trademark is consistently used in the act of commerce.
Copyright protection is automatic once a creative work has been brought into being. The extent of protection is quite generous too. The work is protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years if published as an individual. If the work is created anonymously, pseudonymously, (think of Dr. Suess), or for hire, protection lasts 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.
Back to the burning question at hand, “Can I use quotes on my custom tee?” As previously explained, any published work is automatically copyright protected. However ideas cannot be copyright protected so if something is said in conversation, those words do not fall under copyright. Unless of course they are reiterating in speech what has already been copyright protected from a creative work.
Quotes are generally safe to use if they exist in the Public Domain. These are works for which copyright protection has expired. If it’s documented as existing in the Public Domain, you’re generally safe to use it in your own original works of art such as a printed quote on a tee.
There are even exceptions to copyright protection when it comes to works designed to be used in parody, critique, or review. In this murky realm, a creator really takes on the chance of liability if the copyright holder chooses to challenge the use of their creative works in your creations. If the primary purpose in the use of copyright protected material is for financial gain, this circumvents the argument of using the work in a fair-use defense.
Parody is subjective and in the worst case scenario, you might find yourself defending your position in a courtroom. Although parody t-shirts can be wildly popular, consider a consultation with an attorney to be certain.
You can arguably use short sentences since there has to be a reasonable amount of creativity used in a work to be considered copyright protected.
National anthems cannot be copyright protected so that “star-spangled banner can yet wave” all over your tee without any worries. In fact, we have an Idea Gallery you can use to modify your 4th of July themed t-shirts.
When not to use quotes on a t-shirt:
Don’t use quotes from movies, song lyrics, books, poems, or speeches that have been prewritten and recorded on any media. If the author is still alive, you may not quote their work. If it’s recognizable do not use the quote. The exceptions are works that have fallen under Public Domain like Shakespeare, the Bible, or anything from the Government.
Trademark = Brands
Copyright = Artistic Works
This post was not written by a lawyer, nor does it constitute any type of legal advice. It’s intended to be a guideline to consider when designing custom t-shirts for print regardless whether for personal use or commercial use. When using our services we make the ultimate decision whether we will print a design or refuse the job and refund your order.