Copyright Basics for T-Shirt Design: Dos and Don’ts

Copyright Basics for T-Shirt Design: Dos and Don’ts

Selling designs and opening your own Shop is easier than ever. Of course, with the freedom to create and sell in such an efficient way, potential legal risks start to arise.

Most Shop owners have presumably heard of copyright laws, but many of these designers are ultimately uninformed about what these laws entail. So, how can you be completely sure you’re not going to end up in the middle of a legal disaster?

Here at Spreadshop, we have you covered. We’ll jump into the most important copyright FAQs, allowing you to continue designing without any legal worries.

What is copyright?

Let’s start with the obvious question: what exactly is copyright?  To give a broad, technical definition, it’s the proprietorship of a specific piece work; the proprietor(s) owns the right to distribute, commercialize, replicate and profit from it in any other way.

In short, if a design is copyrighted, don’t go and include it in your Shop. Only the owner of that exclusive design has the authorization to monetize it. This doesn’t just go for t-shirt designs; any written, visual, even verbal content, have potential to fall under the copyright law.

Now, if you love a design that’s proprietary, you don’t need to trash the idea completely. Use the copyrighted design as inspiration to come up with an even better concept for your Shop!

What is considered off-limits when creating t-shirt designs for my Shop?

  • Logos of sports teams, schools and universities, organizations, clubs, movies, books, games and bands.
  • Pictures or artwork of sports teams, schools and universities, organizations, clubs, movies, books, games and bands.
  • Characters from movies, books, comics and television shows.
  • Viral Content such a memes and YouTube videos.
  • Images found on search engines or any other image that is not listed for commercial use.
  • Trademark companies and their logos, names and content.
  • Celebrities exploited in any way, even if you created original content.

We know, it seems like there’s so many limitations when you’re simply trying to come up with a design for your Shop. Don’t let these limitations hold you back. There is still plenty of room for creative opportunity. You just need to think outside of the box!

What design can I legally add to my Shop?

While certain designs are off-limits, there are countless designs that are available for commercial use as well. We recommend using any of the following methods when designing gear for your Shop.

  • Royalty free images that are for commercial use
  • Public Domain images
  • Your original designs

What is the public domain?

The public domain is a collection of creative material that is not protected under the copyright law. Everything is available for public use. Content existing in the public domain is either donated content, expired copyright content, or content that has been forfeited in some way. There are thousands of great t-shirt design ideas within the public domain. If you have an idea that you want to bring to life, start looking there!

Although the public domain is a helpful resource, all public content has the potential to become copyrighted.  Yes, everything is fair-game, but that doesn’t mean content can’t become copyrighted down the road. It’s unlikely that one of your Shop’s public domain t-shirt designs will suddenly fall under the copyright law, but it’s important to be aware of the possibility.

How can I check to see if something is copyrighted online?

You found the perfect graphic for your Shop, but you’re not sure if it’s copyrighted. How do you know what to do? Here are a few simple tricks to help determine whether an image falls under the copyright law.

Look for the signs

  • There is the © symbol. The copyright symbol is usually tiny and located somewhere around the perimeter of an image or graphic.
  • There is a watermark.
  • There is a note representing ownership sourcing.

Do a little research

  • Visit the copyright office to browse through copyrighted files.
  • Check an image copyright online. Perform a reverse image search to reveal the original source of an image.

The obvious

    • It’s not yours and you didn’t create it.
    • Just ask! The best way to get copyright information is from the source itself.

It’s also helpful to be informed on how fair-use is assessed. Each copyright license is different, so it’s important to consider the restrictions and guidelines that follow. Just remember, until you’re certain an image isn’t copyrighted, don’t take the risk of adding it to your Shop.

Are quotes protected by copyright?

People are attracted to quotes and sayings because they affect us on an emotional level. That’s why t-shirt designs with quotes are often top sellers among those with Shops. Quotes are free to be used commercially when you think of them yourself. However, things get a bit tricky when using quotes from copyrighted pieces of work.

We don’t want to bore you with the complicated legal details, so we’ve put together a list of do’s and don’ts for t-shirt quotes.

Do Quote:

  • Anything from the public domain
  • Authors who have been dead for over 70 years
  • Common sayings
  • Sayings that are too short to be protected by the copyright law
  • Parodies
  • Your own thoughts and sayings

Don’t Quote

  • Anything from a living author
  • Anything from an author who’s been deceased for less than 70 years
  • Trademarked material
  • Corporate slogans
  • Scripted or literary works of art

How to copyright a design for t-shirts

Shop owners automatically maintain the rights to any designs submitted to the Spreadshop platform. Once your design is available for purchase, you’re not required to do anything further for ownership. However, there are many advantages to copyrighting your t-shirt designs though the copyright office.  You’ll not only have a public record of proprietorship, but it will also confirm the copyright source to anyone seeking to purchase your design.

To achieve a copyright for a t-shirt design, an application and fee will need to be submitted to the copyright office. This can be done electronically or through mail.

How much does it cost to copyright a design?

Electronic US copyright registration currently costs $35 (fees are subject change). This fee consists of one form and doesn’t require any lawyers. The current forms can be found on the US Copyright website,

In conclusion

Copyright laws may seem like a lot to take in, but it’s important to know the basics. Don’t let the thought of legal matters keep you from expressing your ideas. As long as you’re creating something new for your Spreadshop, then only good things will follow!

Did you know, you can make money with that creativity of yours? See how you can monetize your designs by opening a FREE Spreadshop today!

Open your own shop

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Paxton Sollomen
Paxton Sollomen
1 month ago

How would i not get copyrighted if i used a hanes shirt for one of my custom shirts

Sheuly Khatun
Sheuly Khatun
1 month ago

My shops provide the best design n features for all marketing products.
Visit my soph
Best regards

Marianne Lins
1 year ago

I would like to make up a quote that includes the “I like YouTube”. Can I do this without copyright infringement if I don’t use their logo? Or would I have to write “you tube”… or some other variation? How can I get permission from YouTube?

Lena (@Lena Reth)
1 year ago
Reply to  Marianne Lins

Hi Marianne,

Best to ask our experts here. Please write an e-mail to


1 year ago

Thanks for this information .. I think copyright and publishing are still not fair .. There are many things that can be designed for it but it stops due to copyright … Why not give the percentage of profits to the owners of the photos and sayings and solve this problem .. I think everyone will be Happy if this is done .. Thank you. This is my first day on the site .. I learn a little about the laws before publishing

Lena (@Lena Reth)
1 year ago
Reply to  Maxasll

Hi Maxasll,

This isn’t as easy as you’re trying to portray it. We need to be very strict about this. In case you have any further questions about copyright please write to my colleagues at


1 year ago

Hi – if the eagle glove and anchor Marine Corps logo copyrighted?

Lena (@Lena Reth)
1 year ago
Reply to  Rob

Hi Rob,

Please write an e-mail to to check with our legal team.


2 years ago

I need help with doing my copyrights for my shirt

Lena (@Lena Reth)
2 years ago
Reply to  Dionne

Best to write an e-mail to

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