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Copyright | What Screen Printers Need to Know

Copyright laws are used to protect designs. That includes t-shirts as well as other screen printed designs. When you create a great design for a t-shirt you want to be the only person who gets to use it. Unfortunately the copyright laws in the United States are complex and confusing. Even the general concept of copyright is not completely popular. We are going to clear up some of the confusion and controversy for you. 

Remember at all times that we are not lawyers. You need to do your own research and find your own answers when it comes to copyright. 

Why is copyright law so confusing?

There is a reason that the law is confusing. The first thing to understand is that there are multiple laws. There is international law as well as US law. They are not the same. International law is above the US Law. All countries must meet the basic requirements of International laws. Then each country can enact their own laws for copyright as well. If a US Citizen intended to sue somebody in a foreign country for copyright infringement then it is based on international law. If a US citizen wanted to sue another US citizen for copyright infringement then US law would be used. There are some countries that don’t have copyright laws. They just use the international laws to oversee copyright in their countries. For the remainder of this article we are only going to focus on US law for copyrights. 

In the United States the first copyright law was passed into law  in 1790. This law only protected works for 14 years. The laws that currently exist are much more complex. A work is considered under copyright for the life of an author plus 70 years. This means that once an author/creator dies the work is still under copyright until 70 years has passed. 

The law has changed multiple times. This is because every time a major company is about to lose their copyright the laws get changed to protect that company. The laws have changed and we would not be surprised if it happened again and again. The copyright for Mickey Mouse will expire on January 1, 2024. That means that people will be able to use Mickey Mouse for their own purposes. This will be a serious blow to Walt Disney. They have an incentive to change the copyright laws and may very well make an attempt at doing just that. 

Life plus 70 is not true of all works. Each time the law changed it created a new situation. So some works are within copyright while others are out of copyright. It is confusing because it depends on when the work was originally created and when the creator dies. For this reason there are lawyers who specialize in determining whether a work is in copyright or out of copyright. Works that are out of copyright are called public domain.

What is Public Domain? 

Public domain is simply when an original work is no longer under copyright. The key to this is the word original. Once a work is in the public domain it is possible for somebody to create something new out of it and put it on the market. If someone were to do something based off of this new work then they could potentially be sued for copyright infringement because the new work is under copyright. It is now considered original work.

There are lists of works that are in the public domain and readily accessible for people to use. However, just because a work is on one of these lists does not necessarily mean that the work is in the public domain. It means that people have determined that it is in the public domain. They could have made a mistake and that mistake can be costly to somebody who uses it. It is best to research a work before using it for personal reasons.  

What this means is that a screen printer can use artwork that is in the public domain in their designs. They can alter the artwork. They can charge for it. They can do with it what they please.  

How do you copyright a screen printed design?

A screen printer may want to protect their designs to protect the work from theft. According to US law when a work is put in a tangible form it is copyrighted. This means that once you write something down and there is a concept on paper it is copyrighted. If you create a video or audio recording it is automatically copyrighted because it is in a tangible form. That’s it. If the work has not been placed in a tangible form it is not copyrighted. If a screen printer has a design idea it is important to get that idea on paper or a digital image immediately. Drawing it on a napkin is completely viable.. 

From there it is possible to register the work with the US government. The final product of that registration is full copyright protection. Registration can be done online or by mail. It’s easier and cheaper to fill out the form online. Images of t-shirts or digital images of the designs will be required. Gather all of the materials to be copyrighted. (It is possible to register 10 items at once.) Then proceed to registration at The application fee is $35. Here’s a link to register works…

The process can take around three months to receive a copyright certificate. 

Penalties for Using Copyright Infringement

When a work that has been copyrighted has been used without the copyright owner’s permission they have infringed the original copyright holders rights. There are penalties for copyright infringement. A court can require the infringer to pay anywhere between $200 - $150,000 for each work that has been infringed plus attorney fees and court costs. This is based on the dollar amount of the damages.  A court can also require jail time as well. 

With that in mind it is important not to infringe on other people’s copyrights. It is also important that work can be protected which is why a designer would go through the process of registering their work. Copyright holders will have standing in court should any legal situation arise. 

Copyright Controversy

With all of this in mind there are those that find copyright laws detrimental to society. People find that the laws don’t actually help the general public. They argue that the laws stifle creativity and therefore creative processes are slowed down. Some feel that individual artists can’t afford to protect their own works even though the works are technically already protected. Plus, the laws are so complicated. Because of this complication there are many lawyers who abuse the copyright system for their own gain. 

The Final Word On Copyright for Screen Printers

Screen printers spend time and money creating great designs for their business. It’s their intellectual property. They do not want their designs used in a manner that they don’t approve. Imagine if a screen printer had a t-shirt design that made them millions of dollars and somebody just started printing the same images and selling them without paying royalties. The screen printer would be pretty upset and want their money. That is why copyright laws are there to protect people. 

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