Anyone producing T-shirts or other apparel for sale must get permission in order to use any image, trademark, logo or design that is protected by copyright. If the copyright has been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, then the copyright holder has the right to sue for damages if his creation is used for profit without his permission (there is no enforcement without registration). Thus it is very important to secure that permission, which in most cases will involve a licensing arrangement.
The first step in getting a license for a copyrighted design is to contact the copyright holder. In the case of a product logo, you would need to contact the manufacturer. For a television show or movie, you contact the studio or producer holding reproduction rights. In the case of an individual who is not generally known to the public, you need to contact that person and secure a signed model release, which allows you to publicly reproduce his image.
The copyright holder may have granted exclusive rights for the use of the image to another apparel manufacturer, in which case you will not be able to secure a license unless you contact the manufacturer and arrange a sublicense. There may be restrictions on any sublicensing deal this manufacturer can make, as set down by the copyright holder.
Royalties and Fees
The copyright holder may ask for royalties and/or fees for the right to reproduce the copyrighted image. This may involve a flat-fee contract, in which you pay a set price for the right to make a limited run of clothing including the image. Or, it may involve a royalty, in which you pay a percentage of the money -- usually the gross receipts -- that you earn by selling the apparel.
If you have created an original design and want to protect it, you must register your copyright from the U.S. Copyright Office. This federal agency allows you to register online through the Electronic Copyright Office. You need to upload a digital photograph of your design and pay a fee for the registration. This process takes an average of three months, considerably shorter than the average 10-month waiting period for a paper application.
It's important to remember that you can't subvert the copyright laws by designing your own logo or image in imitation of someone else's creation. Thus, selling T-shirts with a Mickey Mouse look-alike printed on the front risks a lawsuit by The Walt Disney Company, which holds the rights to the original image and is quite diligent in prosecuting violations of its copyrights. You can search for designs and logos under copyright by using the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Trademark Electronic Search System.
Read More: What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?
Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.