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.

The Undeniable Tour Day 7 – Hustling Pays Off

Gorgeous View of the Bay Bridge

Gorgeous View of the Bay Bridge

The slogan for The Undeniable Tour is “Hustle Your Face Off.” This is a quote from Gary Vaynerchuk and it’s both a message I want my audience to hear and it’s my mantra for this trip. I’m trying to reach and meet as many people as I can. Although I only have 5 speaking engagements during this 14-day road trip, my days are filled with meetings and activities.

I want to give a hat tip to Brand X Custom T-shirts in Tempe, AZ who made my “Hustle Your Face Off” t-shirts for me. I’m wearing one of these at each of my tour stops. I’ve had several people tell me they love them, ask to take photos of me when I’m wear one,  and Jacob Sapochnick of Enchanting Lawyer (one my sponsors) asked if I brought a shirt for him.

To me, hustling your face off is about making things happen. You don’t wait for opportunities to come to you; you go after what you want. As long as you are appropriate and mostly professional, I encourage you to push the limits and take strategic risks to get what you want.

I want to give a shout out to Scott Goering. He’s a lawyer/mediator who specializes in juvenile dependency cases. He saw me when I first spoke at the Bar Association in San Francisco in 2012 and has been keeping tabs on me since then because he was impressed by how I use social media in my professional life.

My Hustle Your Face Off Shirts, made by Brand X

My Hustle Your Face Off Shirts, made by Brand X

Footnote: When I say “keeping tabs” I don’t mean he’s been stalking me. He’s simply paid attention to what I publicly post online. It’s part of networking and it’s not creepy.

Scott is based in San Francisco and he’d reached out to me to say that he was looking forward to my presentation at the Bar Association of San Francisco during The Undeniable Tour and the he hoped we could get together while I was in town. I filed that away with all my other tour emails and didn’t give it much thought.

About 6 weeks ago, I was in San Francisco for the Dad 2.0 Summit. The conference and my participation in it was public information – so Scott came by to say hello and to say that he was looking forward to The Undeniable Tour. I was impressed by his tenacity and that sealed the deal for him that I would make room in my schedule when I came back to town to have lunch with him to talk about his ideas for using social media in his career. I don’t consider myself an expert in personal branding or using social media but I was happy to share my thoughts and give him some recommendations of people I follow when it comes to entrepreneurship and marketing including Gary Vaynerchuk, Peter Shankman, Katy Goshtasbi, and Ari Kaplan.

One thing I’ve learned about being successful professionally is you have to go after what you want – whether that’s a job, awards, connections, or opportunities. They won’t come to you through hoping for them, you have to work for it. I encourage you to take strategic risks and be bold about what you want.

If you are interested in connecting with me while I am traveling please follow me on Twitter. If you have any questions or comments about The Undeniable Tour, please shoot me an email.

The Undeniable Tour would not be possible without my amazing sponsors: Web3Mavens, Enchanting Lawyer, Total Networks, and Attorney at Work.

All Tour Sponsors

Important Money Lessons for Entrepreneurs

Piggy Bank Awaits the Spring by Philip Brewer from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Piggy Bank Awaits the Spring by Philip Brewer from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’ve been listening to, and loving, The Mistake Podcast, hosted by Peter Shankman and Peter Keller. Each week they interview a successful business owner or C-level executive about their biggest business mistake and what they learned from it. Shankman and Keller started this podcast earlier this year and I’m really enjoying hearing about others’ experiences building their businesses. Ironically enough, I usually listen to The Mistake Podcast during my morning run.

Some of the mistakes featured on the podcast have been about poor money management. I wanted to share these people’s mistakes with you so you can learn from them instead of repeating them.

Now, I’m not a financial expert or an accountant, but I’m lucky that I had a fantastic business mentor who showed me how to read and analyze my financial reports during my first year in business. I also have an awesome accountant who takes care of me and my business from a tax perspective. So, I’ll share a little about how I manage my business’ financials.

Understand Your Business Cycle and Cash Flow Needs
Gary Kanning of 420 Science, a business that makes “stash jars” learned the hard way how important it is to understand your business’ financial reports. He’s in a business where there a cycle over the course of the year with periods of high volumes of sales and lower volume months. Lots of businesses have this type of ebb and flow and it’s important to plan ahead so you’re not short on cash or inventory when you need it.

One of the gems from Kanning’s interview is never assume that everything is OK. If you’re the owner, it’s your responsibility to check your financial reports like your profit and loss statement and cash flow report to see where your money is coming from, where it’s going, and watching for patterns so that you can be ready when there’s a natural drop off in business.

One of the benefits for me as a solo business owner is it’s all on me to do everything. The only work related to the business’ finances that I don’t do myself is my taxes. Every week, I pay my bills. Every month, I have a two-hour meeting with myself where I pull my reports from Quickbooks and analyze  how the business is doing, look back on whether I achieved the goals set for the previous month, and make plans for the future.

More Profit = More Taxes
Amanda Steinberg is the founder of Daily Worth, a financial media company that educates women about personal and business finance. She’s also a serial entrepreneur. She had the fortunate experience of growing one of her businesses from $300K to $800K in one year, and she wasn’t ready for the $90K tax bill that came with it. She recovered from this mistake and learned a lot about the financial side of running a business.

If you’re an entrepreneur, there’s a good chance you pay quarterly taxes. That amount will be based on your financial performance the previous year. If you have a substantial jump in financial success, you could be writing a big check come April 15th despite paying your quarterly taxes. If you are having this type of success, you may want to talk with your accountant about what that will mean for you tax-wise so you won’t be caught off guard.

I meet with my accountant twice a year. I sit down with him when I drop off my materials for him to do my taxes and I meet with him every December to discuss how the business did for the year, to determine if I should do a spend down before the end of the year, and he gives me ballpark figures on what I can expect to pay in quarterly taxes and for my annual taxes the following year. Since I’m paranoid, I increase this amount on my projected financial reports and plan accordingly. If it ends up being less, I’m pleased; but I’d rather be prepared to pay more than worry about my cash flow.

I’ve said it many times – a good accountant is worth their weight in gold, and yes, every business owner needs one. But your accountant can only help you if you give him/her accurate information about your business, so maintain an open line of communication.

If you want to chat or commiserate about the joys and challenges of being an entrepreneur, feel free to connect with me on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoogle+YouTube, or send me an email. You can also subscribe to the firm’s monthly newsletter. If you want more information about Carter Law Firm, please visit the homepage.