Reading time: 4 minutes

T-shirts are usually the first items developed in a new clothing line. They may have photographic images, unusual patterns, words or quotes printed on the front. Some t-shirt designs may be created specifically for the t-shirt and others may be existing images or quotes.

If you intend to create t-shirts with patterns on the front, you need to know your intellectual property rights and whether you need to consider another party’s intellectual property (IP) rights. This article looks at IP issues relating to t-shirts, specifically considering the copyright material used on a t-shirt or that may subsist in the t-shirt itself.

Copyright in Images 

If you are printing your original images or patterns on t-shirts, copyright subsists in the images and you are the owner. However, if you are using someone else’s images or images from the internet, you will need the copyright owner’s permission.

The internet is particularly tricky as sometimes the source is difficult to identify. Do not assume that images are copyright-free just because there is no copyright notice. Also, be wary of images that have Creative Commons Licences and make sure that the licence allows you to use the image for your intended purposes. Some licences are for non-commercial purposes and if you are setting up a t-shirt business, this licence would not suffice.

Copyright in Quotes

Copyright does not always exist in quotes and short phrases. If you are printing quotes on your t-shirts, establish first whether there is copyright attached to the quote and whether you need to first approach the owner for permission. The shorter the phrase, the less likely it is that copyright subsists as it is more difficult to show that it is sufficiently original.

If you are not using the whole quote, you will only need permission if you are using a substantial proportion of the original. This is not a black and white situation – even where you are only using a small part of the quote you may still need permission if the part you are using is considered to be an essential or distinctive part.

What are the Exceptions? 

The Copyright Act 1968 provides for a number of exceptions to using copyright material without consent including where the material is used for the purpose of parody or satire. The purpose of parody or satire is known as a fair dealing exception under which you may be able to use the material without paying a licence fee. The exceptions are not straightforward and so you should be careful of relying on fair dealing without being certain that they apply.

In What Does the Copyright Subsist?

Copyright subsists in original artistic work. Since most t-shirts are very similar shape, it is possible that a basic t-shirt itself may not be enough to attract copyright protection, unless it is particularly unique in design or construction.

The artistic work printed onto a t-shirt, however, is protected by copyright. Even if the t-shirt is mass-produced, the image on the t-shirt will not lose its copyright protection. The general rule is that copyright in a two-dimensional artistic work (i.e., the image) is not lost if the image is on a functional item (the t-shirt) that is mass produced.

What Does This Mean?

If someone starts selling copies of your t-shirt and you are the owner of the copyright material, you are able to enforce your copyright and take action against them.

You can also take action against copyright infringers if you are the exclusive licensee of copyright material but not the owner. If you have exclusive permission from someone to use their image on your t-shirt, other parties should not also be able to reproduce the image on their t-shirts.

Other Intellectual Property Rights

If your clothing item is not a standard t-shirt and it is unique in design or construction, it may be possible to register the design. Design registration is appropriate for unique clothes that you intend to mass produce, as long as you register the design before introducing it into the market.

Finally, you should consider a trade mark for your t-shirt label. You can register you label name or logo as a trade mark as a way for your consumers to identify your brand. A trade mark gives you exclusive right to use the name or the logo in relation to your clothes and prevents other clothing businesses from using the same or similar marks.

***

If you have any questions about how to protect your t-shirt designs, get in touch with our intellectual property lawyers on 1300 544 755. 

Webinars

Construction Contract Essentials

Thursday 12 August | 11:00 - 11:45am

Online
Understand how construction contracts are drafted and how to protect your construction business.
Register Now

Startup 101: Understanding Cap Tables and ESOPs

Thursday 19 August | 11:00 - 11:45am

Online
Cap tables and employee share option plans are essential for fast-growing startups. Learn more with this free webinar.
Register Now

Expanding to NZ: Structuring Your Business For Success

Thursday 26 August | 2:00 - 2:45pm

Online
Launching a business in New Zealand? Understand how to structure your business for success with this free webinar.
Register Now

Preventing Modern Slavery: Your Business’ Legal Obligations

Thursday 9 September | 11:00 - 11:45am

Online
Are you an Australian business with $100m+ annual consolidated revenue? Learn how to determine if you are a modern slavery reporting entity and your obligations under the legislation with this free webinar.
Register Now

About LegalVision: LegalVision is a tech-driven, full-service commercial law firm that uses technology to deliver a faster, better quality and more cost-effective client experience.

The majority of our clients are LVConnect members. By becoming a member, you can stay ahead of legal issues while staying on top of costs. From just $119 per week, get all your contracts sorted, trade marks registered and questions answered by experienced business lawyers.

Learn more about LVConnect

Need Legal Help? Get a Free Fixed-Fee Quote

If you would like to receive a free fixed-fee quote or get in touch with our team, fill out the form below.

  • 2020 Excellence in Technology & Innovation – Finalist – Australasian Law Awards 2020 Excellence in Technology & Innovation Finalist – Australasian Law Awards
  • 2020 Employer of Choice – Winner – Australasian Lawyer 2020 Employer of Choice Winner – Australasian Lawyer
  • 2021 Fastest Growing Law Firm - Financial Times APAC 500 2021 Fastest Growing Law Firm - Financial Times APAC 500
  • 2020 AFR Fast 100 List - Australian Financial Review 2020 AFR Fast 100 List - Australian Financial Review
  • 2021 Law Firm of the Year - Australasian Law Awards 2021 Law Firm of the Year - Australasian Law Awards
  • Most Innovative Law Firm - 2019 Australasian Lawyer 2019 Most Innovative Firm - Australasian Lawyer