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September 13, 2021

Disclaimer: Although we’re knowledgeable on certain legal aspects of an e-commerce business, we are not lawyers. This information is intended to inform and keep you aware of general copyright and trademark guidelines for e-commerce. If you have any questions outside of the scope of this article, we recommend doing additional research on your specific concern or consulting a lawyer for more information.

When you start designing for your e-commerce business, you need to be aware of copyright and trademark rules and guidelines. Copyright and trademark infringement can lead to hefty fines, penalties, and loss of profits. GearLaunch takes design theft and IP (Intellectual Property) claims seriously. In the past, we’ve removed stolen designs and shut down stores within our platform when repeated theft was occurring.

4 Copyright and Trademark Guidelines For Your Business

Copyright and Trademark aren’t the Same Thing

Many people use the terms copyright and trademark interchangeably, but the terms aren’t identical. In short, trademarks are for terms, symbols, and names. A copyright is used for original creative works, like movies, books, paintings, songs, web content, and choreography.

For example:

  • If you are putting a company’s name or logo on a t-shirt without permission, you’re violating their trademark.
  • Song lyrics on a design without permission are a copyright violation.

You should avoid both types of infringement in your designs!

For more information about copyright and trademark, visit the United States Copyright Office and the United States Patent and Trademark Office, respectively.

Safe Images to Use When Designing

Are there images you can use without worry? Absolutely! You can use:

  • Flags
  • National symbols
  • The likenesses of political figures
  • Coats of arms

These aren’t protected by copyright or trademark, so you won’t face a lawsuit if you put them on a product.

However, if there’s a famous picture or image of something from the list above, don’t use the picture or image. While the images in the picture might be fair to use, the photograph is protected.

Proper Fair Use Can Be Safe Use

“Fair Use” allows for parodies, so if you’re making a parody design, you can generally get away with using famous characters that others can recognize. Just make sure it’s clearly a parody.

The parody opportunity isn’t just for people and characters. It also extends to things like logos. When creating a parody, it’s important to note that trademark protection is in place under the law to reduce the likelihood of confusion, mistake, or deception in the marketplace.

Your parody should strongly mock the original work with enough differences to be clear it’s not related to the original work. If you’re planning on using a picture you found on the internet or a famous quote, learn where they came from and how to credit them properly.

Learn more in our detailed Fair Use and Parody blog post.

Getting Safely Inspired

We’ve all been inspired by other people’s work before. You may have found a picture on the internet that might make a great t-shirt. You may want to put your favorite quote on a mug. However, you must be careful using these images or quotes because they could get you into trouble if you don’t go about it the right way.

Famous quotes are generally ok to use, as long as you attribute them properly. Put the quoted person’s name on the shirt in a smaller print, or add it to the product description on your website. The author could pursue you, but they aren’t likely to do so.

It’s also important to consider the Right of Publicity, which states that people have the right to control the commercial use of their identity. If someone feels you’re using their identity in a commercial way they object to, you could be facing a lawsuit.

With all the risks you take to use the work and likenesses of others, creating and using your own designs is always the best option.

For internet pictures, there are some sites that offer photos free for commercial use if the owner of the photo gets credited. If the site doesn’t give you the information about who owns the photo, you’ll need to make sure you track down the true owner and get written permission to use it.

Acquiring written permission will protect you from legal problems you might otherwise face, and is the only safe way to use a photo in your t-shirt design. For more information on attribution and different licenses, check out Creative Commons.

It’s Best to Create an Original Design

The best way to avoid copyright and trademark infringement is to create an original design!

If you made a design that’s truly your own, you can feel pretty confident that you’re not violating anyone’s trademark or copyright. It may be harder to come up with something that’s unique to you, especially with so many designs already on the market, but it’s still certainly possible! When you do, you greatly lower your risk of running into trouble for a copyright or trademark violation while at the same time offering customers unique designs they can only purchase from you!

Are you ready to start selling your awesome designs? Get started with GearLaunch today!

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