Nobody Likes a Copycat: Basic Facts About Copyright


Imagine you spend hours every day for weeks – perhaps months or even years – creating a piece of work. You get it to the point of your satisfaction and decide to release it to the world. Ideally, you’d like to make some profits from the work you put in so you start selling it on t-shirts. One day, you’re browsing the internet and come across some products with your artwork on it and you know the products don’t belong to you. Someone has stolen your design and claiming as their own to make a profit! Welcome to the world of copyright.

The key point to know about copyright is it protects all works – print, digital, film, and recording media. It was created to protect artists rights of ownership and distribution of works created. This includes the right of copying, reproducing, displaying, selling, or performing the work unless granted permission from the creator. The exceptions to the rule – er, law – is if the copyright term has expired (95 years if published and 70 years after the death of the creator if it was unpublished) or if it is used for education or public source (Bible verses, historical facts).

Creations protected by Copyright Law doesn’t mean you can’t use it, but it does mean you must go through proper channels to get permission. As designers and creators, as much as we know trends sell, we also want to make unique products. Just as we wouldn’t want our unique designs profited on by someone else without our permission, it’s just as important (plus professional courtesy) to request distribution permission from the creator before reproducing someone else’s work.

Ask First

Let’s define infringement. Infringement is copying or reproducing a body of work without permission and breaking the rights of the Copyright Act. Even something in the likeness of a piece of work can be considered infringement. For instance, if you take a picture of a popular princess cartoon, change some colors, then sell it without permission, and people recognize the image as the cartoon, that is infringement. It still looks like and gives the resemblance or messaging of someone else’s work, it’s infringement. The copy does not have to be exact to fall under the infringement category.

We all know what free speech is. There’s a minor defense in infringement claims called Fair Use. It’s similar to free speech in the copyright world. Fair use is intended to be used for educational or newsworthy purposes. Commonly known themes are not under the protection of copyright – for instance, shapes, holidays, flags, etc.

Best practice is to always ask permission, first. In the custom apparel business, we often see customers request popular designs or phrases and want them duplicated and reproduced for their own purpose. You have the right, and often an obligation, to say no. You, as the distributor, are recreating someone else’s product for profit. That is breaking the law – not the customer – even though they asked for it. What you can do is ask for the customer to provide written documented permission from the creator granting you permission to make and sell their work.


  • Original artwork is protected from the moment of its creation – with or without a copyright notice ©
  • Just because you purchase artwork doesn’t mean you own it, it just means you’re allowed to use it. You cannot claim it as your own or send it to your friends for free.
  • All U.S. works published before 1923 are in the public domain
  • A copyright notice is no longer required for protection – anything originally created is automatically protected

An image on Google doesn’t make it “public domain”. Public domain is when the copyright has expired (Anything published after 1923, and/or anything published 70 years after the creator’s death).


About Author

“I make words and things.” Shanna Bellingham is the copywriter and marketing assistant for The Rhinestone World. She has been a journalist and photographer for several publications throughout north Central Florida. Shanna has a bachelor’s degree in mass media communications and has spent several years in public relations, digital publishing, marketing management, and mass communications.

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