Technology has made creating images to print on shirts, coffee mugs, tote bags and other sellable goods much easier. But with a world of ideas available with a quick Google search, technology opens the door to a higher likelihood of copyright infringement.

You probably (hopefully) know that you can’t just print whatever you like without permission. Brand names and logos, sports team logos and mascots and popular works of art are obviously off limits. Copyrighting goes beyond that, however. With a better understanding of copyrighting, you can better protect your business from committing copyright infringements and better protect your own original images from being stolen for profit by other businesses.

About copyrights

What constitutes a copyrighted image? Any image, as soon as it is published, is considered copyrighted. That means that any picture, meme or phrase that you can find on the internet is technically covered by copyright law.

Avoiding copyright infringement

What copyright law means for your screen printing business is that you can’t just grab an image off the internet and put it on a t-shirt. You have to determine the source of the image and know whether it’s in the public domain — that is, an image or phrase that is old enough to be considered free for anyone to use or that has been released by the artist for reproduction — or contact the original publisher to get permission for its use. Asking for permission to use images extends to images we typically think of as protected, such as movie logos, band names, sports teams and brand logos, as well as to images and phrases we might not think of as protected, such as memes, artwork published online via sharing sites like Instagram and Flickr, song lyrics and photos or likenesses of celebrities.

The best way to avoid copyright infringement is to make your own images in house. To augment your designs, you can take advantage of free image sites or purchase bundles of clipart to avoid having to create all images completely from scratch. If you do see an image, phrase or lyric, that you are dead set on reproducing, take the time to seek written permission from the artist. If a customer brings artwork to you, it’s your responsibility to ensure that the image is original and doesn’t infringe on any copyrights. If you are working with an outside graphic designer, have a clear written agreement outlining who owns the images he or she produces on your behalf.

Protecting your original images

The flipside of copyright infringement is that your original images also are protected. From the moment you print, others can’t attempt to capitalize on your artwork. While any artwork is protected without the filing of an official copyright document, if your business is based on your original artwork, you might consider filing the paperwork to copyright your designs. If someone does reproduce them without your consent, you’ll have documentation that the image is yours and that you were first to produce it.

Copyright law can be complex, and no business wants to deal with a copyright lawsuit. Protect your business from copyright infringement by refraining from printing images that aren’t yours without permission. And know that in turn, your images are protected from being taken by others.