With the popularity and use of the internet it has become increasingly easier to start your own company and sell custom printed products such as t-shirts. But with this convenience also comes many legal problems. It is easier than ever to search Google Images, Pinterest, or a popular t-shirt company and find images that we might want to for t-shirt designs.

However, in many cases this is illegal and might be considered copyright and/or trademark infringement. In the United States, there are registrations that impact t-shirt designers include trademark and copyright that are issued by the federal government and protect two distinct types of intellectual property including copyright and trademark.


In its most general definition, copyright is the ownership over a piece of work or art and the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, commercially exploit, and otherwise profit from it. Work is automatically copyrighted when it is created; however, registering the copyright with the The U.S. Copyright Office is required if a business wants to sue over the use of the material by another party. Copyright tends to be more geared toward literary and artistic works and they protect the following:

  • Books, articles, web content
  • Paintings, photographs, and visual works
  • Songs, movies, television shows and ads


A trademark is a recognizable word, sign, design or expression that identifies and distinguishes the source of goods of one party from those of others. 

Trademark tends to protect items that define a company brand.  and they protect the following:

  • Business name, brand, or product names
  • Logos or marks used to identify a company or product
  • Company slogans or phrases

What does this mean for t-shirt designers? Using any artwork from the internet that you don’t own or didn’t make is ILLEGAL.