Have you come up with tons of witty T-shirt designs you simply can’t wait to put together? If so, there might be a few copyright issues you may want to consider first. What are the dos and don’ts for printing T-shirts, and why is that so?

Also, do you have any design ideas you’d like to protect from other manufacturers? In that case, learn how to copyright your T-shirt designs for free (or at a minimal cost) below. You’ll see how playing by the rules and establishing some boundaries will pay off in the end.

T-Shirt Design Copyright: The Things You Can and Can’t Print

What You Should Avoid Printing on Your T-Shirt


No one can argue Chris Evans won’t look good on a T-shirt — either as Captain America or himself. However, printing his face on a piece of clothing won’t be the most ethical thing to do. The reason is that doing so would involve complicated copyright issues.

You should thus avoid using photos or caricatures of living celebrities. Also, sketching your favorite Hollywood star won’t be advisable, either. The same goes for taking other people’s artwork featuring celebrity images (such as Internet memes).

Famous Pop-Culture Characters

Printing your favorite fictional character is another big no-no in copyright. In other words, you should steer clear from using images of any cartoon or video game characters you might find inspiring.

The same applies to fictional beings from comic books, movies, and TV shows. So, if you desperately need a Stranger Things T-shirt, find the one with the copyright symbol. But if you want to create your own design, avoid using anything that resembles another fictional character.

Institution Logos

There might be an institution you’re particularly fond of, like Harvard University or the University of Oxford. But regardless of how much you admire it, putting its logo on a T-shirt is never a good idea. Apart from breaking this educational institution’s copyrights, it also seems preposterous.

The same rule applies to printing the logos of well-known organizations, sports teams, and clubs. Besides, you should also avoid using your favorite band’s or artist’s trademarks.

Company Logos

With the increase in the demand for graphic designers, these people have created a highly competitive field. Because of that, many companies can brag about designers who have made their name more unique and memorable. More often than not, their designs of company logos can count as true works of art.

Therefore, it can easily happen that you fall head over heels for someone else’s logo. But to avoid breaking this company’s copyrights, you should never use their logo on your T-shirt. The same rule applies for taking their name and trademark, regardless of how creative it might seem.

Living Authors’ Quotes

Your all-time-favorite book quote might be so inspiring that it often keeps you up at night. For example, you might be a fan of Stephen King or Margaret Atwood. If so, you should know that quoting their works on your T-shirt doesn’t comply with copyright rules.

You should thus avoid using the quotes of any living author, regardless of how old their book might be. Only if it’s been more than 70 years since an author’s death will you be legally allowed to print their quotes.

What You Can Print on Your T-Shirt

Public Domain Images and Quotes

If you come across an image in the public domain, its intellectual property rights have likely expired. In that case, you’ll be able to use it for your T-shirt design. But what counts as public domain?

The public domain contains any creative content no longer protected under copyright laws. Thus, you’ll be able to take all the images, slogans, quotes, and graphics you may find there without asking permission. So, if you’ve managed to find a particular piece of content in the public domain, it’s your lucky day — you can use it with no strings attached.

Common Sayings

An apple a day keeps the doctor away — just as a common saying does to copyright claims. So, if there’s a saying you find particularly lovely, you can print it on your shirt. Since it’s common property, no one will have the right to take it away from you.

Also, you can safely use all national symbols, flags, and coats of arms. Your T-shirt can even feature an image resembling a famous political figure. Just try not to make it too personal, nationalistic, or offensive — and you’ll be good to go.

Images Meant for Commercial Use

You might also come across a website offering images for commercial use. In that case, you’ll be able to include them in your design. However, there is a tiny catch.

You will have to give credit to the owner of this image. Otherwise, your T-shirt design might count as plagiarism. So, don’t forget to ask the original author’s permission to show you aren’t after any sort of piracy.

How to Copyright Your T-Shirt Design for Free

If you have come up with an inspiring layout yourself, you might want to protect it. In that case, you can copyright your T-shirt design so that no one else can steal it. Typically, this goes automatically without any charges or paperwork. Once you’ve created your dream design, put it on a T-shirt, and it should be safe.

Otherwise, you get to sue those who copy your design without permission. All you need to do is register your work with the US Copyright Office. To register, you’ll have to submit an application form and a copy of your work and pay a small filing fee. If you decide to submit your application electronically, the fee will be even lower.

Copyright for T-Shirt Design: Final Thoughts

Before printing the T-shirt of your dreams, you should make sure your design complies with the copyright rules. Therefore, avoid using the images of celebrities or pop-culture characters. Also, don’t include the logos of other companies and institutions in your design. Instead, only use common sayings, public domain content, and the quotes of long-deceased authors.

You can also make up your own signature design and protect it with copyright laws. Just register your idea with the US Copyright Office, and your work should be safe at almost no cost.