How to copyright t-shirt designs

I get this question a lot. How do I copyright my t shirt design so no one can steal my designs?

I got this information off the site ask the lawyer. A great resource for legal advice

Copyright protection automatically attaches to an original work of authorship from the moment of creation and fixation. Under the current law, no action need to taken to secure copyright protection – neither publication, registration or the use of notice. There are, however, advantages to registering a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, and a work of U.S. origin must be registered before an infringement suit can be filed. Registration may be made at anytime within the life of the copyright. Registration is a legal formality intended to make a public record of the basic facts of a particular copyright.

The advantages of registration include:

  • Establishes a public record of the copyright claim;
  • Allows the general public to confirm the owner of a copyright and permits those seeking to purchase or license copyrights to find the appropriate owner;
  • Meets the registration requirement necessary to file an infringement suit for works of U.S. origin;
  • If made before or within five years of publication, establishes prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright; and
  • If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or any time prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions (otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner).

So once you design it and put it on a shirt it’s copyrighted. You don’t need to do anything. However registering your work with the US Copyright Office is needed if you want to file a suit against someone.

How do I register a copyright for t shirt design?

Registration is achieved by submitting the proper application form and a nonrefundable filing fee to the U.S. Copyright Office along with a nonreturnable copy of the work (one copy if the work is unpublished or of type that the Library of Congress does not collect; two copies if the work is published and collected by the Library of Congress) to the U.S. Copyright Office. Applications for registration can be submitted electronically or still by regular mail, although fees are lower and processing times much faster if filed electronically.

Copyright Office Circular 1C available at is a good source of information to get started on an application for registration.

eCO eService:
The Copyright Office has a relatively new electronic system for registering, called the eCO eService, which should be used if possible for registering basic claims to copyright, even if the deposit is not in digital format. You can register online registration with eCO by going to the home page of Copyright Office website at and clicking on the eCO icon. You will be asked to set up an account the first time you register online. You may then start the application; the form will walk you through each step and instructions are available. If you have a copy of the work in electronic form, you may submit it at the time you submit the online application. If you do not, or wish to submit physical copies of the work for purposes of complying with mandatory deposit requirements as well, such as for published books, periodicals, sound recordings or motion pictures, you will be provided with a bar-coded form which you must mail in with your deposit copy(ies). Online applications are currently $35 per registration.

Form CO:
The next best option for registering basic claims is the fill-in Form CO. This is a generic form for registration of a single work of the performing arts and visual arts as well as literary works, sound recordings, motion pictures, and single issue serials. The form can be found on the Copyright Office website You should fill out the form on your personal computer, print it out, and mail it to the Copyright Office, together with the filing fee and deposit. As you fill out the form, a barcode is created on each page. The barcode is essential for ensuring that your application is processed timely and efficiently. Do not write on the Form CO, other than to sign it. The fee for submitting a Form CO application is $50 per registration.

Old Forms Based on Type of Work:
The Copyright Office used to use separate paper forms for various types of works: e.g., Forms TX (literary works, including computer programs), PA (performing arts), SE (single serial/periodical issues), SR (sound recordings) and VA (works of visual art). The Copyright Office will still accept these for the time being, but discourages it, because it dramatically increases the processing time and it no longer makes the forms available online. The fee for submitting an application using the old paper forms is $65 per registration.

Effective Date of Registration:
Registration becomes effective on the date that the Copyright Office receives all the required elements in acceptable form, regardless of how long it takes to process the application and mail the certificate of registration. Note, however, that in some jurisdictions, including New York (but not California), a copyright owner can only sue for infringement after receiving the certificate of registration. Determine the law of the jurisdiction you are filing in before filing the law suit. Expedited registration is available for an extra fee whereby a registration certificate can be obtained in anticipation of litigation generally within 5 business days.

For detailed information on copyright registration, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website at or contact VLA for additional assistance on registering copyrights.

Here is a little more info from legal zoom.

Logos as Trademarks

Trademark protection can apply to a word, phrase or symbol that is used to identify and distinguish goods used in commerce. Whether or not a logo is subject to copyright protection has no bearing on its eligibility to be a trademark. Like copyright, trademark law protects against infringement, but this protection can be limited to the specific categories in which the mark is registered. For instance, while names such as Batman or Wonder Woman and phrases such as “up, up and away” are all registered trademarks for use on clothes, they do not have copyright protection.

Logos and Artistic Design

Nonetheless, as the Copyright Office observes, a graphic design is subject to copyright. Not only does this mean that a design placed on a T-shirt is protected against copyright infringement, but a logo might also qualify for copyright protection to the extent that it consists of an artistic design. For instance, in cases brought by the creator of the Baltimore Ravens logo against the National Football League and more than 100 retailers, courts have found that the logo, consisting of a stylized image of a raven, is subject to copyright protection. In addition, a logo consisting of a graphic design may also be trademarked.

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  • Brett Dayman

    Great post man. I am curious if you have any advice about what steps you should take if you see your design being copied elsewhere? As a small t-shirt business, most of us will not have the $ to get a lawyer involved or we may only have the $ to ask for a lawyer to send a strongly worded letter. Do you have any tips for how to handle this situation? My biggest concern is finding a design online and discovering the country of origin is not a signatory to the fta (like China or many south east asian countries). There are many press articles out there regarding major retailers ripping off independent labels designs. When legal action is taken the retailer pleads ignorant and points the finger at an overseas supplier (like vietnam) and takes no responsibility. I guess you should be pleased your design is popular but how best protect yourself to minimize potential lost revenue?

  • mike

    Can i use the nike swoosh on my shirt?

  • jonkruse

    Sure, do it if you want to be sued by Nike

  • jonkruse

    Lots of times I’ve had people email me about where they saw copies of my design. I’ve talked to a few of these companies that were contest sites where users submitted my design. They just took down the design and that was the end of the story.

    As far as major retailers taking your design I think that’s where you can get a lawyer involved because there could be some decent money you could get off of the lawsuit.

    For other countries taking your designs and printing them, you can send them letters but there isn’t much you can do. They probably aren’t stealing any of your customers but it does suck to know that someone is profiting off your work. Just don’t worry about it too much it isn’t worth your time.

  • jonkruse

    there is also this site,

    also the website is good to get the community to send emails and facebook messages to the company who stole your design. Nothing better then public shame to get someone to do something right.

  • Craig Johnson

    hey great post, I always think about this when doing my designs, but tell me something, if I did a design based of the superman logo…but you know without the “S”, would that be infringement in anyway?

    Love this site btw, followed and liked!

  • jonkruse

    Sounds like that would be a parody and considered fair use.

  • PAIN

    i got a great logo but it sorta looks like pacman…problem?

  • jonkruse

    probably, but I am not the person that decides that.

  • jackee mccoy

    I have a shirt design that includes the nike check. the nike check is being used as the letter “J”…..can I use that?

  • jonkruse

    probably not

  • jackee mccoy

    the design I made couldn’t be categorized as a parody

  • jonkruse

    You haven’t given much information, but simply switching the letter y with the nike symbol doesn’t sound like a parody.

  • jackee mccoy

    this is the design im talking about

  • jonkruse

    I would consider that a parody, but I am not a copyright lawyer.

  • jackee mccoy

    I spoke to a patent lawyer and without seeing the design with me just explaining it to them they said they don’t see a really big problem. the design is not easily mistaken as an actual nike product. I also spoke to nike to get as much information on the usage of the swoosh to avoid being sued. they said they cant give me any advice on how to use the swoosh. my best bet is a parody or “free use”

  • Aureliano Mondragon

    could i use a painting done by an artist and use it on a shirt? even if i put his name on the shirt for credit wise?

  • jonkruse

    Not unless you get permission to use it. You cant just use other peoples work without their permission.

  • Nadia Bent

    If I design a T-shirt can I have as many words on it without getting in to any trouble just some everyday ebonics/slang words LOL

  • stefanie erin

    I have learned so much from this website. One thing I can’t make up my mind about-is it worth trademarking a name and logo right from the start? A lawyer quoted me almost $900 for the search alone. It’s probably not necessary to trademark but I’m worried about pouring money into printing tees or website if I have to change anything later because it might be close to something out there I haven’t seen yet. Any suggestions?

  • stefanie erin

    I have learned so much from this website. One thing I can’t make up my mind about-is it worth trademarking a name and logo right from the start? A lawyer quoted me almost $900 for the search alone. It’s probably not necessary to trademark but I’m worried about pouring money into printing tees or website if I have to change anything later because it might be close to something out there I haven’t seen yet. Any suggestions?

  • jonkruse

    I would suggest waiting but its all up to you. Most people think too much on the trademark and copyrights instead of making your business profitable. Make some money first then trademark. Lost of times people will change their name and business plan after the start and that money is wasted.

  • stefanie erin

    That’s the same advice I just got from an artist I met with. Just more i can spend on the website instead. Thanks for the response and again for everything I’ve learned from your site.

  • jonkruse

    doesnt sound like a problem

  • David Castro

    My advice is to trademark your name and logotype right from the start. This is your most important business asset. You will spend time and money building a brand and then your lawyer makes the search and might let you know that there is already a similar trademark registered. Do not take this chance. Lawyers are expensive, but it is worth it if you are serious about your business. Since legal protection is so important, spend as much time necessary to come up with a good name and build a solid brand identity around it. Good Luck!

  • girl with a question

    Hi, do you know why a lot of clothing stores like Urban Outfitter, American Apparel etc have copy right beside there name instead of trademark? I am in the process of getting a trademark for the name of my future online store which is similar to UO & AP. But now I feel I should get a copyright protection instead. I am still not familiar with all the things I can copy right such as my store name. How are UO and AP able to have a copy right? Sorry if this is to much. I really need help.

  • that girl

    I’ve contacted a photographer about using his photograph with my typography work for a t-shirt. I’d want to make it an exclusive and limited sale. (example, I’d print only 30)
    The shirt would be amazing. I’ve changed his photograph in tonality and hue and added type. He won’t reply. I’ve emailed him twice and can’t find another form of contact.. what do you think?

  • Jon Kruse

    Sorry for the late reply. Don’t do it Stefanie. I think a lot of people get bogged down and use valuable capital on stuff they don’t need in the beginning. Chances are no one is going to try and use your logo or name and you are just $900 in the hole starting out. What can you do to be profitable now.

  • jonkruse

    Smoke’em if you got’em is a pretty common expression so that isn’t a problem. With the logo though, that would be a problem.

    This isn’t a parody and you are profiting off of the shows popularity.

  • bre

    Hi so what if I just designed a shirt for my own personal use. like put the writing of the one ring from lord of the rings on it. but i didnt plan on giving it away or selling it just wearing it. like that alright?

  • Kurt

    What if you are indirectly referencing or implying something that may be copyrighted? For example, if you have a sentence that mentions the name “Clark” with blue, red, and yellow colors? Its an allusion to Superman (Clark Kent) but never mentions his actual name or anything directly tied to him? Would using a first name, with colors related to it, be an infringement? Same thing with professional athletes and team colors. If a first name is used, with colors similar to their team, is that an infringement?

  • Ur Art Studio

    Wow, this is great. Now I know even in t-shirt design there is copyright. Nice having this info.

  • jonkruse

    Hey Brian this is by no means my expertise, but common sense would say no. Especially since it isnt your logo.

  • Eaga

    informative post! Thanks @ Jon cruse.

    Here is a link about copyright registration :
    I hope it will be useful.

  • Stevie Giles

    What category would a tshirt design go into for a copyright? I looked on the eCO list but nothing jumped out at me.