T-Shirt Designs And Copyright Laws: What Can You Sell Legally?

t shirts design and copyright laws

Copyright is all about securing the copyright law interests of the owner. In other words, only the owner has the moral right to copy and duplicate his own work.

No one may use the intellectual property of someone without the consent of the creator. Thus, the original author material has exclusive rights to use the work in some way under copyright law.

Considering that you’re going to open your own designer t-shirt shop. You should make sure that the patterns you’re selling particularly for creative t-shirts aren’t stolen from anywhere else.

If discovered, you can suffer serious legal consequences. Most artists and store owners are not completely aware of copyright regulations, which ultimately proves to be a legal nightmare. 

As a t-shirt manufacturer, you must have copyright since no other person or company can use your designs unlawfully for any business gain.

It’s appealing to use an interesting graphic, shirt quotations, or animations as part of your layout. But any unauthorised usage will put you in legal trouble later on.

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What is a copyright?

about copywrite law

Copyright applies to the legal protection of the holders of intellectual property. Copyright is the right to reuse in simplified language.

This ensures that the original designers of the goods and those allowed by them are the only ones with the exclusive right to recreate the work.

Copyright laws grant the authors of the original content the sole right to further exploit and reproduce the product for a given period of time, after which stage the copyrighted product becomes publicly available.

Main take-offs 

  • Copyright law protects the maker of the original content against unwanted reproduction or use. 
  • For the original work to be protected under copyright law, it must be in a physical way.

How Copyrighting Works

When someone produces a product that is deemed to be unique and that needed considerable mental effort to be produced, that product becomes an intellectual property that must be shielded from unwanted reproduction.

Examples of unique works include electronic applications, sculpture, poetry, graphic design, musical lyrics and compositions, books, films, original architectural designs, website content, etc.

Copyright is one of the protections that can be used to lawfully preserve an original development

Within copyright law, a work is deemed to be original if it has been created by the creator based on an independent mind free of repetition. This style of work is known as the Original Authorship Work (OWA).

Someone with an original creator of the work legally holds the copyright on the project, which forbids others from using or trying to replicate it. Copyrights can be licensed by the original owner voluntarily if they wish to retain ownership of the legal system if the need arises.

Not all forms of work can be copyrighted. Copyright will not protect inventions, discoveries, philosophies, or hypotheses of any sort. Brand names, trademarks, slogans, domain names, and titles can not be protected by copyright law.

For the original work to be copyrighted, it must be in a physical form. This means that all voices, discoveries, musical scores, or proposals must be published in tangible form to be protected by copyright.

When are you infringing on a copyright?

copyright on internet

Compliance with Section 23(1)(a) of the Copyright Act No.98 of 1978 (occasionally referred to as the “Law”), a direct violation happens where an individual other than the copyright owner creates illegal copying, adaptation, or publishing of work without authorisation.

The infringer shall conduct one or both of the protected rights set out in sections 6 to 11B of the Act. For example, the publishing of illegal work or the adaptation of a protected work or the replication of work by, for example, a photocopy or rewriting or re-typing, or the location of work on a webpage.

How can you tell if something is copyrighted and you can’t use it?

The copyright grants its holders the legal right to sue another for the illegal use of the patented material.

The Copyright Office provides rights to numerous artistic works, including books, musical arrangements, drawings, sculptures, and electronic program codes. In fact, ideas cannot be patented, so if the idea is written down or registered physically, for example, the author obtains such rights. 

However, to obtain maximum rights under the constitution, including the right to pursue infringement cases before the federal court, the author must apply to the Copyright Office for copyright.

Therefore, if you are seeking to decide whether or not you can lawfully exploit someone else’s artistic work, you can begin by deciding if the work is copyrighted. 

Here are the main requirements to determine whether a work has a copyright on it:

  • Taking a look at the job itself

Many copyrighted works but not all include a copyright notice such that others are aware that the work is protected. For example, a copyright notice is usually written at the beginning of a book. However, this sort of warning is not technically necessary, but just because you don’t see it on a piece of art doesn’t mean that it isn’t copyright protected. 

  • Search the website of the Copyright Office 

For works copyrighted after 1978, you can scan the online archive using the title, the name of the author, or the keyword. Based on your search terms, you can get so many links that you need to narrow them down with additional filters. You can do so by using the date or year of registration of the work and/or the name of the index.

  • Check for Copyright Card Catalogue 

Use the copyright catalogue in a library for works copyrighted before 1978. The catalogue of the copyright card is organised by year and type of work and lists the title of the work, the author, the date of publication, and the name of the applicant. This method requires a little bit of legwork, so a librarian should be able to assist.

  • Request a check by the Copyright Office 

As a last option, you can want to ask the Copyright Office to check for copyright protection for you. The Office’s website contains a fee structure that describes how much such a search could charge you.

Dropshirt is where to get ‘Print-on-demand’ merch that is shipped directly to your customer. As a print-on-demand service you hold no stock. Order just one. As a ‘white label’ service. It even looks like you shipped it. Create an account here.

What can happen if you print copyrighted designs?

using copywrited design

In most countries, photographs are protected under copyright and international copyright arrangements.

As defined by the Copyright Office, an image is covered by copyright at the time it is made and continues to be protected even after the death of the artist.

If you own the copyright to a picture or have a license from the creator, publishing a copy of an image or uploading it online without authorisation is a breach of copyright. It is up to the copyright holder to determine whether to sue you for violation.

Here are examples of copyrighted designs :

Using Pictures from the Internet 

Many of the pictures you use online are now breaching the copyright of someone else. That doesn’t mean you should use them without any repercussions, either.

Copyright owners do not  have to license their images, and they do not have to insert a copyright symbol on the images to protect their rights; these items just make it easy for you to identify the copyright owner.

But if anyone allows you to use an image for personal projects, using an image for your company is a totally different matter. You almost often need to receive a commercial license for business purposes.

Company usage involves placing an image on and distributing T-shirts, printing a sign for a shop, or posting an image to your business page. When you’re using an image to make money, the copyright owner of the image typically hopes to make money. 

Copyright Laws on Google Photos 

If you are using Google to scan for photos, use the filter method to filter search results into two categories: 

  • Creative Commons Licenses: These photographs are typically free to use, but enable you to credit the creator. You can’t modify them or use them for commercial purposes. 
  • Commercial Licenses: these photographs can be used for commercial purposes, provided that you pay a licensing charge to the holders. Before you can use any image you find on Google or any other website, you must examine the publishing rights yourself. As Google states its status, there is no way of determining copyright ownership. Filters should be seen as a reference, not as any sort of legal defence on which you might rely in a court of law. 

Agreements on Image Licenses 


Any copyright holder has the right to grant licenses allowing anyone to use their work in the manner they see fit.

Websites selling images, either for free or for sale, can also grant licenses at the request of copyright owners in several ways. Licenses can be for a finite amount of time or a limited number of reproductions.

Others will require you to pay a royalty to the copyright owner on each print you produce, while others may demand a one-time royalty-free license.

Laws, Trolls, and Retroactive License Fees 

Copyright owners may give you a cessation letter before filing a lawsuit, but this is not necessary.

In the standard procedure in recent years, somebody claims to own copyright and demands a lawsuit until you pay a retroactive licensing charge of several thousand dollars – cheaper than having a lawyer in a federal court case, but far more costly than buying a license before using a photo.

Dropshirt is where to get ‘Print-on-demand’ merch that is shipped directly to your customer. As a print-on-demand service you hold no stock. Order just one. As a ‘white label’ service. It even looks like you shipped it. Create an account here.

How to avoid copyrighted designs and be legally secure

t shirt dropshipping copyright

Understanding the fundamentals of copyright is essential for many companies, particularly those in the media, the culture, and the entertainment industry. Knowing how to prevent violation of copyright is as relevant as learning how to protect copyright.

If the use of copyrighted material comes under one of the exceptions, undertakings intending to make use of any copyrighted material must do one of the following:

  • Obtain approval from the copyright owner or his attorney that may include payment of the licensing fee. 
  • Where copyright work has been created as part of a collective arrangement, consider using an Intellectual Property Assignment document. 
  • Check the copyright/licensing jargon on the websites (eg sometimes permission will be given to reproduce content, as with the Open Government License).

Dropshirt is where to get ‘Print-on-demand’ merch that is shipped directly to your customer. As a print-on-demand service you hold no stock. Order just one. As a ‘white label’ service. It even looks like you shipped it. Create an account here.


If you have a hot new T-shirt concept and wish to legally defend it, you need to patent it by copyright.

Copyrighting your idea would prohibit anyone from using and learning from your layout. The Copyright Office has three choices for copyrighting your layout: online, using the scanned CO form or mailing in paper submission.

While it may take several months to obtain your copyright certification, your T-shirt design is lawfully patented, licensed, and covered as soon as the Copyright Office receives a full submission, invoice, and copies of your design.

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