No Protection for Short Phrase T-Shirts

FUNNY ASS SHIRT by Douglas Muth from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I regularly get questions from people who sell shirts on Etsy, Café Press, or a similar website and they claim that another user is stealing their design. When I look more closely at the situation, I see all the person is selling is shirts with a short phrase, in a common font, and no other artwork or design elements. Many times, I have the unfortunate responsibility of telling them that there’s no intellectual property in their design, so there’s no infringement (that’s legalese for “stealing”).

No Copyright in Short Phrases
Copyright applies to original works of authorships when they are fixed in a tangible medium. A t-shirt is a tangible medium, and it’s possible to have an original work on a garment. However, short phrases aren’t original works, so the act of merely printing one on a shirt does not create a copyright-protected article.

If that’s all you’re selling – word or a phrase on a shirt – there’s likely nothing you can do (from a copyright perspective) to stop your competition from selling a shirt with the same phrase on it. If you look on any of these DIY shirt and craft sites, you’ll see the same phrases on shirts from different sellers. There’s no copyright protection for words, images, or phrases like “geek,” “reasonable person,” “Introverts Unite! Separately in your own homes,” and even more creative phrases like “terminally soulless douche canoe.”

The Anti-Titanic Shirt

This used to be less of a problem before we had Teespring, Zazzle, and sites that make it easy to create and sell shirts and whatnot. In the past, if you wanted to sell a shirt, you had design it, have it printed, and then sell them in shop or on the street, or if you had html skills, you could create a website and people could mail you a check for a shirt. That’s what my friend, Peter Shankman, did when he sold anti-Titanic shirts in 1998. He started selling them in Times Square and then sold them online. He was a success, in part, because he had no competition.

What Could be Infringement
Every t-shirt design on Etsy is not up for grabs. Copyright does not protect short phrases, but it does protect designs with original artwork on them. Additionally, copyright protects the images you post of your shirts on your site. If you see another seller using your photos, that would likely be infringement (assuming it’s your photo). Sending a DMCA takedown may be sufficient to get them removed from their online store.

The other thing to watch for is trademark infringement. A seller can use a short phrase as a trademark to brand their wares. They can also create a logo that they put on their products. If you see someone using your trademark or a mark that is similarly close to yours, that could be infringement and worth investigating.

Beat the Competition in the Marketplace
For anyone who is selling these types of shirts, the best way to deal with your competition is be better than they are. Give your customers a reason to buy from you than from another seller, or having it made at a t-shirt shop. It could be your prices, the quality of the garments, or something about your company that makes you more desirable than the others.

Beyond that, you may want to consider upping your t-shirt game by creating or purchasing designs that will be protected by the Copyright Act.

Copyright is an area of the law with many gray areas, so if you’re having legal issues regarding your copyright rights, you can contact me directly or an intellectual property lawyer in your community. I regularly post about copyright and other IP issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Creator Rights | Phoenix Comicon Recap

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon - sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon – sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

I had an awesome time presenting on Creator Rights at Phoenix Comicon this year with Javier Hernandez. His comic book series, El Muerto, was recently made into a movie and a fan created a fan film that was shown at the Con. It was really interesting to hear his story as an artist trying to muddle through the legalities of working in the arts with the help of his lawyer.

I don’t prepare much for my talks at Phoenix Comicon. I feel like it’s my job to be there to explain legal concepts in plain English and answer the audience’s questions about copyright, trademarks, contracts, and fan art. There’s always a fun smart audience with thoughtful questions. It’s a privilege to be invited back multiple times. Here are some of the highlights from this year.

You have Rights in your Original Creations
There is no legal protection for ideas but there is for original works of authorship once you’ve captured your ideas in a tangible medium such as paper or a digital file. The copyright laws were designed to protect original storylines and fully-formulated characters. I often recommend that artists at least register their “story bible” with the U.S. Copyright Office to maximize their legal rights related to their work.

Once you create a comic, you have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, or make derivative works from your original work. That’s why the movie studio had to get the option (aka license) from Javier to make a movie from El Muerto, because a movie is a derivative work. Javier didn’t authorize the creation of the fan film and so when he went to see it, part of his motivation was to see if he wanted to exert his legal rights to stop the creators from showing it in other forums.

Protect your Trademarks
Someone in the audience shared a horrific story. He created a comic and after he started sharing his work with others, someone else started a similar comic – with the same name. Here’s the kicker, the second guy registered the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. What a nightmare. I told him to call a lawyer to try to sort out this mess.

A lot of beginning artists and people who create art as a hobby don’t understand their rights and how they can avoid problems like this by registering their trademark before their competition does. Or if they understand their rights, they don’t invest the money to file the proper applications with the federal government. These types of problems happen all the time. Check out what happened when two restaurants decided to call themselves “Burger King.”

When Contracts are Involved, Call a Lawyer
If you are lucky enough to create art that someone wants to buy or license, call a lawyer. The other side is going to present you with a contract that was written solely based on their interests. You need someone who is equally versed in entertainment contracts to represent you. Lawyers talk to lawyers – so hire someone who can explain the process, understand your priorities, and advise you of your options.

Javier and I had a fantastic time doing this panel – sharing our experiences and knowledge from the creator’s and lawyer’s perspective. It was a wonderful juxtaposition for the audience. I also did a panel at Phoenix Comicon on Fan Art/Fiction and Copyright. If you want to know more about that specific topic, check out this post I wrote last year with a handy mnemonic device.

If you have questions or want to chat more about creator rights, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Yahoo Taking Advantage of Creative Commons with Flickr Wall Art – Hope they Don’t Screw it Up

1404 Phoenix Zoo-59 by Devon Christopher Adams from Flickr (Used with Permission)

1404 Phoenix Zoo-59 by Devon Christopher Adams from Flickr (Used with Permission – Devon & I have a standing agreement about using his work.)

My friend and amazing photographer Devon Christopher Adams tipped me off about Yahoo’s announcement that people can buy Flickr Wall Art of Creative Commons images from Flickr . If Yahoo does this right, it’s a brilliant business move. If they do it wrong, I hate them.

When a photographer posts their images on Flickr, they can designate whether they are restricting all copyright rights (“all rights reserved” aka don’t use my work without ask my explicit permission first) or attaching a Creative Commons license to it. A Creative Commons license means anyone can use the photographer’s work as long as you follow the rules of the license. For example, I often use Creative Commons images on my blogs but I only use photos that come with the license to modify and commercialize them. This allows me to crop the photo and to use it for business purposes – like a blog post on my law firm’s website.

If Yahoo only uses images for its wall art product that come with the license to commercialize them, then Yahoo already has permission to print these images onto paper or canvas and sell them, as long as they follow the other rules of the license.

Every Creative Commons license I’ve ever seen requires giving the copyright holder an attribution for their work. (Always give credit where it’s due!) I would hope that Yahoo would put the attribution on the front of the image – in a lower corner, so anyone who sees it can know who created the image. If that’s not possible (and good luck convincing me it’s not possible), at least put a non-removable label or notice on the back of who the copyright holder is and a URL to the original image on Flickr. If they don’t give an attribution as the license requires, they could be committing copyright infringement and could face a cease and desist letter, a bill, or a lawsuit.

I’m a huge advocate of copyright holders, especially in the arts community. I think a lot of photographers aren’t given the credit they deserve because many people assume they can replicate a photographer’s work with their smart phone – until they try to do it and they see how much skill it really takes.  Photographers constantly have to deal with people stealing their work online. It’s so wonderful to see them becoming more savvy about their legal rights.

I hope Yahoo is diligent about giving photographers the credit they deserve and respecting when a photographer changes the license on their Flickr account to only allow non-commercial uses. This won’t impact a person’s ability to own wall art of it prior to the license being changed; but Yahoo should stop selling it if the artist doesn’t want the company making money from it.

I hope Flickr Wall Art becomes an avenue for photographers to get exposure for their work in ways that will create new opportunities for them and that they won’t feel like Yahoo is taking advantage of them. If done properly, whoever at Yahoo who came up with this idea deserve a muffin basket for seeing this business opportunity.

Copyright and the internet is a murky area of law, and one that is still evolving. If you want more information about this topic, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat more about this topic, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.

Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Copyright FAQs

Large Copyright Graffiti Sign on Cream Colored Wall by Horia Varlan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Large Copyright Graffiti Sign on Cream Colored Wall by Horia Varlan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

When I speak, I often refer to previous blog posts as potential resources for attendees. I frequently talk about copyright issues and I realized I haven’t written a post about copyright basics. So let me fix that.

What is Copyright?
The copyright law gives you rights to your original work. Your work may be comprised of text, drawings, photographs, video, sculpture, music, etc. When you create something, you have the right to control where your work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it.

What’s a Derivative Work?

When Do You Get Copyright Rights?
You get your copyright rights the moment your work is fixed in any tangible medium. It has to be a work you’ve created, not just an idea in your head. You do not have to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office or even put a copyright notice on your work (“©[YEAR] [YOUR NAME]”) to get your rights.

How Long Does Copyright Last?
For all works created on or after January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright is as followed:

  • For work created by an individual: Life of the author + 70 years
  • For work created by a company: 120 years from the date of creation

After this time period, the work become part of the public domain and anyone can use it for any purpose without needing the copyright owner’s permission. The owner of a copyright can give up their rights to their work at any time by releasing it into the public domain. If they release a work into the public domain, they can never reclaim their copyright rights.

What’s the Difference Between Copyright and Trademark?

What’s the Benefit of Registering a Copyright with the Copyright Office?
There are two main benefits for registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office:

  1. It is strong evidence that you actually own what you claim you own.
  2. You cannot sue for copyright infringement unless you register your work with the Copyright Office.

If you want to be in a position where you can sue for copyright infringement when someone steals your work, talk to a copyright attorney about your copyright strategy. There are many ways to protect your work. This is where the law can get really complicated and you want to make sure you’ve set yourself up for your desired outcome.

How Do You Register Your Work with the Copyright Office?
You can register your work on the Copyright Office’s website. You’ll need to fill out the form, upload a copy of your work, and pay a filing fee. The filing fee for a single work is $35-55. You can do this yourself, but the Copyright Office’s website is not very user-friendly.  I recommend at least hiring an attorney to walk you through the process the first time.

Legal Side of Blogging Book CoverIf you want to do it all yourself, allot at least 2-3 hour to get through it the first time. And you might want to have an adult beverage on ice as a reward at the end of the process.

To put it in context, it took me an hour the first time I registered my own work and I knew what I was doing. (I have a certificate in intellectual property in addition to my law degree.) Now, I can submit an application to register a copyright in under 30 minutes most of the time.

I hope this has been helpful. If you have questions about how copyright works in terms of the internet, social media, and /or blogging, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. Approximately half the book addresses copyright issues.

If you want to talk more about copyright, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

U.S. Copyright Office is Raising its Filing Fees on May 1, 2014

Burning Nature by Vinoth Chandar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Burning Nature by Vinoth Chandar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, the U.S. Copyright Office announced that it is raising its fees to register your work. Effective May 1, 2014, the cost to register a single work or a collection of works using their online system will go up from $35.00 to $55.00 per application. For those of you who are old school and prefer to register your work by mail, the fee will go up from $65 to $85.

So if you have projects that you were planning on registering with the Copyright Office, now would be a really good time to get them done.  You only have to get your application in before May 1st; it may take the Copyright office until after May 1st to process it.

There is one piece of good news in the fee hike announcement. The U.S. Copyright made an exception for individuals who are registering single works that are not “works made for hire.” If you are a photographer, writer, or some other artist and you want to register you works individually, your filing fee will remain at $35 per application.

I had a question about this exception because I know many artists who create a lot of works that are not works made for hire, but they do it under an LLC for liability and tax purposes.  I called the Copyright Office and they confirmed that you only qualify for the $35 fee if you register as an individual person. If you register your work under your business name, you have to pay $55 per application, even if you are the only person in the business.

Heart in Pages by Vincent Lock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Heart in Pages by Vincent Lock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The only things that are changing on May 1st are the Copyright Office’s fees. The rest of the copyright laws have remained the same.

To qualify for a copyright, you need an original work of authorship that is fixed in any tangible medium. When you have a copyright, you have the exclusive right to control where your work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. You get these rights the moment your work is created, even if you never register it with the Copyright Office and even if you don’t put a copyright notice on your work – i.e. “© [Copyright Owner’s Name] [Year].”  If you register your work, your registration provides the presumption of ownership and validity of your copyright rights. If you ever want to sue for copyright infringement when someone steals your work, you must register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office first.

If you want to talk more about copyright, copyright registration, or intellectual property strategy, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. If you post your original work online, I strongly recommend you check out the many chapters on copyrights in my books:

Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Highlights on Copyright & Publishing from the Indie Author Conference

Rockin' my Magic Red Chucks at the Changing Hands Indie Author Conference - Photo by Jeff Moriarty (used with permission)

Rockin’ my Magic Red Chucks at the Changing Hands Indie Author Conference – Photo by Jeff Moriarty (used with permission)

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Changing Hands Indie Author Conference over the weekend. It was a day packed with sessions for indie authors and aspiring indie authors on how to publish and market a book. I did two sessions called “Legally Speaking” on how copyright applies to book writers. Here are the top 10 highlights from my presentation and the audience’s questions.

1. You have copyright rights in your work the moment your ideas are captured in any tangible medium (paper, computer file, etc.). You still have your rights even if you forget to put a copyright notice in your book.

2. Having a copyright gives you the exclusive right to copy, display, distribute, perform, and make derivative works based on your work. These rights last for the duration of your life, plus 70 years if your work was created after January 1, 1978.

Close-up of my Magic Red Chucks - photo by Pam Slim (used with permission)

Close-up of my Magic Red Chucks – photo by Pam Slim (used with permission)

3. You don’t have to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office to get your rights. You do have to register if you want to sue for infringement.

4. You should submit you application to register the copyright in your book before you make it available for sale.

5. If you live in a community property state (like Arizona), copyrights acquired during the marriage are community property unless you have a prenuptial agreement or spousal agreement that states otherwise.

6. Make sure you understand the difference between a copyright assignment and a copyright license. In the former, you give away your copyright rights; in the latter you retain copyright ownership but grant someone permission to use some of your rights.

7. If you are incorporating other works, characters from existing works, or trademarked products, consult an attorney to make sure you understand what legal risks you’re taking with your project.

8. You will need works made for hire contracts or copyright assignments for artists who contribute to your book (i.e., illustrations, graphics, forward or afterward by another writer, cover art) to give you the copyright in what they create. Consider adding a provision to the contract that states the contributor indemnifies you if you’re accused of copyright infringement because of their contribution.

9. When you create a budget for your book, plan to pay for a lawyer for a few hours to draft or review your contracts. Use a copyright lawyer, not your lawyer buddy who specializes in personal injury law.

10. If you have a publisher, read your contracts carefully to make sure you understand what rights you’re giving up (if any) and how and when you’ll be paid. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand because you’ll probably be stuck with the contract as long as it’s not illegal. Never be afraid to ask for clarification.

If you want to chat more about this topic, please can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.