Ever wanted to make your own fandom merch for your favorite movie or TV show, but are being held back by a little thing called copyright? Get to know more about how to avoid copyright laws and the best tips and practices.
Knowing what copyright law is and how easily you can break it if you’re not careful is essential for those making fandom merch, or any kind of merch really. Corporations have no shame in shutting down shops who are using trademarked logos and characters – no matter how small they are.
As a designer and seller of fandom merch, you need to make the right choices to avoid serious legal action. But copyright law can even put you in a creative position to speak to an audience that hasn’t seen what you’re offering them before. Being able to say something new and not get sued? Sounds like a win-win to me.
What is Copyright?
When a work is copyrighted, that means it is owned by an artist or organization. The original creator of the art owns all copyrights to the art legally unless they sign over the rights to someone. This goes for designs, but also applies to other forms of media like songs and movies and corporate branding. For example, the founder of Starbucks didn’t design their iconic logo, but since he bought the rights from whoever designed it – he owns that image and therefore can take legal action against anyone who uses it without permission.
You can use a copyrighted work if you get permission from the owner, but It’s unlikely – especially as a small merch shop – that you’ll get permission to use a copyrighted logo. So I wouldn’t try to go down that road.
When trying to find a copyright work around, people often look to parody laws to help them get away with using famous characters or icons. A parody is a fair use of a copyrighted work when it is a humorous form of commentary or imitation of the original work. This can still be a tricky area to use appropriately while avoiding legal action, though.
Many popular TV shows and even artists like Weird Al have been able to use parody laws to their advantage, but it’s different when you have a bigger platform or name recognition to back you up. But even Weird Al still asks for permission before he parodies an artist’s song.
It’s the respectful thing to do.
People put a lot into their art, and you don’t want to seem disingenuous by using their work for your own advantage or risk being sued. That’s why you need to be aware of all the different kinds of design elements that can fall under copyright.
Copyrighted Designs/Content To Avoid
In case the word copyright and how to avoid copyright laws still seems too broad, let’s go over what design elements you should avoid when making your merch.
Logos are the most obvious thing. One of the easiest and most copyrighted elements, they’ll usually have a small © symbol under them as an additional reminder of how off limits they are. Entire industries can be built off just one logo.
Take the Harry Potter logo, for example.
It’s on the books and DVDs, but it’s also on toys, official merch, and promotional tools for its theme parks. The logo acts as an umbrella for all official brand merch, and copycat items aren’t likely to be ignored. They want to have as much control of the Harry Potter name as possible, and that includes what merch is licensed.
Pictures and art associated with certain movies, bands, and sports teams are off limits, too. These organizations and the people in them own the images and reserve the right to use them however they please. It’s likely they even have their own merch or advertising that uses these images already.
The same goes for photos you find online.
Unless it’s from a free stock library or public domain source like Unsplash, you’re not allowed to use it.
Using characters and celebrity images is another no-no. Stay away from designs that have character images, names, or quotes. Characters belong to a franchise and are protected to ensure that they’re not used inappropriately in other contexts outside of the movie or video game they’re in.
You might think you’re safe with celebrities cause they’re just people, albeit famous ones. But a lot of celebrities have big PR teams that will catch this kind of stuff and shut it down. Some celebrities even have their name trademarked, like Rihanna, Beyonce, and Bruce Springsteen.
You would think you could use quotes because they don’t have an image tied to them, but since they are tied to the work and certain characters, they’re off limits.
Another element you might not think falls into copyright territory: memes. A meme might already technically violate copyright if it uses copyright photos or characters. And you don’t want to end up being sued by the person who originally created the photo and the person who made the meme.
But if you’re unsure if something is copyrighted: just do a little research. It will save you a lot of headache and worry in the long run.
So, how do you design fandom merch that avoids all of these iconic images and likenesses associated with them? You’ve gotta be creative, of course, but most importantly: original.
Originality is Key
The best way to avoid copyright laws is to create original designs. This might seem impossible to do without using the iconic images and names associated with something you’re passionate about, but the more familiar you are with a fandom – the better your designs will be.
If someone is going to your shop because they love Star Wars as much as you do, they probably already have all the essential merch: graphic tees with the movie posters and characters on them, Darth Vader pillow cases, Porg pajamas, you name it. They’re looking for something that’s unique that they wouldn’t be able to find on merch normally, let alone official merch.
Pop a bag of popcorn and watch the movies for the 18th time for “research” purposes. Scour the internet for fan theories and niche interests.
People have been debating for decades who shot first in that iconic Mos Eisley cantina scene: Han Solo or Greedo. Take something popular among dedicated fans and allow them to have fun with it. Set it up where people can add their names to a design: [Steve] shot first. Or make up your own obscure name that sounds like it could be a Star Wars character just to be silly.
Find Your Niche
Think about the aspects of a fandom universe that people would normally ignore.
Like, what food do they eat there? Make up a funny saying around it: “I’d rather be drinking thala-siren milk right now,” and put it on whatever merch you want.
The people who watched that iconic scene in The Last Jedi and are into the smallest details around the Star Wars universe will get it.
If you just want to use text, add in elements around the design that will help speak to the fandom and for those that might not understand the merch at first. Use stars or planetary elements for something like Star Wars, and wolves or castles for something like Game of Thrones.
If you’re an artist or artistically inclined, draw your own rendering of what your wand would look like if you were a wizard. Even promote these skills in your shop and offer commissions for people who want their own personal wand on different kinds of merch.
The more love you have for your fandom – the deeper and more original you can get with your references and design style.
Expand Your Niche
Catering to an audience that gets what you’re doing is so important and will help you determine the kind of designs you want to make and how you want to grow your shop.
And if you feel like you can’t say everything you want about your fandom through merch, think about expanding your platform.
Start a podcast with friends to talk about Back to the Future theories or movie insider info. Create a Twitch channel where you can connect with all your Legends of Zelda people. Wear your merch and include links where people can buy it in bios or as comments.
You’ll be able to expose your merch to people that interact on these different channels and connect with them in a more meaningful way over a fandom. You can avoid copyright laws and share your passion with the world.
It can even make you something that people feel more comfortable buying from. You seem like an expert in this particular thing and are clearly devoted to it, so trust and loyalty will ultimately follow.
The best part of being in a fandom is connecting with people who GET you. Making one-of-a-kind merch is a way for you to find your people and rediscover everything you love about a movie, TV show, video game, whatever it is, all over again.
Start making your own fandom merch today!