How to Get Licensing for Shirts

By River Braun, J.D.

How to Get Licensing for Shirts

By River Braun, J.D.

If you have an idea for a great shirt but think it involves using copyrighted material, it is best to check with the U.S. Copyright Office and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before you hit the presses. If you use a logo, image, name, or other protected mark, you may find yourself in hot water with the owner of the mark.

Office without a person in it with racks of clothes around the room

Registering material protects an owner's right to exclusive use of the material. If you use the mark, logo, or image on your shirts to make a profit, they could sue you for damages. If you want to obtain a license for your shirt design, follow these steps.

1. Search for a trademark or copyright before using a creation.

If you have created a design that contains a potentially copyrighted character, logo, name, or other mark, you need to perform a thorough search before using the material. In addition to browsing the internet for any similar material, you should also search the USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System and state databases.

2. Contact an owner for permission to use material.

If you determine that the material you want to use has copyright protection, contact the owner to gain permission to use it on your shirts. For example, if you wanted to use a character from a movie, you would contact the producer or studio that holds the reproduction rights. To use a logo, contact the company or individual who owns the trademark for the logo. The same applies to obtaining permission to use previously registered materials publicly and for profit.

Some people try to avoid the licensing step by changing the mark in some way. Unfortunately, it is against the law to design an imitation of a copyrighted image, logo, or mark to avoid obtaining permission to use their protected marks. Using a lookalike figure, the same name with a different color and font, or a name that is the same except for one letter could result in an infringement action. You may be able to defend your T-shirt design with a fair-use defense, but the costs involved may not be worth your while.

3. Look into obtaining a sublicense.

In some cases, the owner has already assigned the exclusive right to use the material to another party. When they assigned their copyright to another party, you may not be able to obtain permission to use the item on your shirts. Depending on the licensing terms, you might be able to obtain a sublicense from the assignee. However, the assignee may not have the authority to sublicense the material under its agreement.

4. Pay Fees and Royalties

The copyright owner may charge you a fee to use the logo, name, or other mark on your shirts. They may require a flat fee for you to use the material for a limited time or a limited number of shirts. However, they may also require you to pay a percentage of the money you receive from the sale of your shirts for permission to use the material.

If you create your own original T-shirt designs, be sure to protect those from infringement. You can register your design with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can also apply for a federal or state trademark to protect your original creations.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.