As a t-shirt enthusiast and online t-shirt retailer I frequently browse the web to see what types of t-shirts are being sold and potentially popular. I am constantly amazed at the shirts with celebrities, corporate parody logos, and popular phrases from various decades. How do you determine if it is legal to sell a particular design on a t-shirt? I wish I had an easy answer to that question but will provide a brief summary and point out some resources to continue the very tricky area of t-shirt copyright and trademarks. This is a huge topic and I will cover it over a few articles but I will start out discussing the basics of copyright and trademark. What most people seem to be interested in when deciding what to put on a t-shirt is “What designs can’t be copyrighted”. The U.S. Copyright Office states that Names, titles, and short phrases or expressions are not subject to copyright protection. Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or if it lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright.. Related to t-shirt designs, this includes: 1. Names of products or services 2. Names of businesses, organizations, or groups 3. Names of pseudonyms of individuals (including pen name or stage name) 4. Titles of works 5. Catchwords, catchphrases, mottoes, slogans, or short advertising expressions. So then what does Copyright protection cover? Copyright protection under the copyright code (title 17, section 102, U.S. Code) extends only to â€œoriginal works of authorship.â€ So ideas and concepts cannot be protected. HOWEVER, its not quite so simple. We can not forget about our good friend Mr. Trademark. U.S Trademark law states that there are Some brand names, trade names, slogans, and phrases that may have protection relating to unfair competition, or state or federal trademark laws. Federal trademark laws cover trademarks and service marks that identify or distinguish one source of goods or services from another. Trademarks of service marks may include words, phrases, symbols or designs. The Copyright Office and US Patent and Trademark Office are seprate offices and serve different functions.
How do I search for existing trademarks?
You can visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office search page. From this page click search, then on the next page: “New User Form Search (Basic)” and enter your criteria. Using the search example of I Love New York you will see 36 registered trademarks. Here you can view the details of all 36 records. One of the most famous in these results is for I [Love] NY, an image that is commonly seen t-shirts.