The global custom t-shirt printing market size was valued at USD 3.9 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.9% from 2022 to 2030. Specific to the United States T-shirt sales market was estimated at $746.4 million in 2020 and $812.7 million in 2021, and the CARG is expected to increase to 10.1% from 2022 to 2030 (Grandview research), indicating that the T-shirt printing industry is extremely profitable. You can find the reason cause the T-Shirt Printing Business trending now and in the future. 

The T-shirt printing market is very appealing. Obviously, if you are a t-shirt printing business owner, I'm sure you have a plethora of fantastic ideas for custom T-shirt designs. However, are they legal? Why do we need to spend time on this issue? Many cases of dispute involve copyright infringement. There are 5 famous copyright infringement cases you can refer to.

So before learning how to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts, you must know what is copyright, how it works, and what copyright infringement is. We will define it clearly below.

Copyright Basics For T-Shirt Design

1. What exactly is copyright?

"Copyright is a type of intellectual property that grants its owner the exclusive right to make copies of creative work for a set period of time." The creative work could be literary, artistic, educational, or musical in nature. The purpose of copyright is to protect the original expression of an idea in the form of creative work, not the idea itself. "Copyright is subject to restrictions based on public interest considerations, such as the fair use doctrine in the United States," according to Wikipedia.

How it works 

“Copyright in a work created on or after January 1, 1978, subsists from its creation and, except as provided by the following subsections, endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death”(Copyright Law of the United States). To get more information, you can access the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17).

What are some examples of things that can be copyrighted?

Most of the work in creating will be protected by copyright law such as works of literature, musical compositions, works of drama, choreographic pieces, works in graphic, pictorial, or sculptural media, audiovisual and film, audio recordings, and architectural projects. 

What is copyright infringement?

No one has the right to use someone else's intellectual property; only the owner has the right to clone, copy, and duplicate it. All actions that use the work are protected by copyright but don’t have permission are considered copyright infringement. Such as you see a picture on the internet but it is copyrighted and you still print it on your T-shirt and sell it, you infringed on t-shirt copyright. 

Fashion is one of the industry always faces copyright infringement. This act is boycotted by fashionistas, therefore you must know how to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts. 

Obviously, if you infringe on copyright, you will be faced serious legal consequences and many problems with your brand.

2. Consequences of Copyright Infringement

Consequences of Copyright Infringement

If a copyright holder discovers that you are using their material without their permission, they will send you a cease and desist letter via email or snail mail to request you stop using their material, especially if you are doing so commercially. obviously, you must observe them. If you don’t you will be sued.

If you are sued for copyright infringement, the thing that is affected first is your reputation. You may be facing:

  • Loss of customers and business
  • Invested funds are squandered
  • jeopardized the fan base of a T-shirt brand

Not only that, you must face a sentence from court both criminal and civil penalties.

  • A five-year prison sentence is possible.
  • A $250,000 fine
  • The copyright holder was awarded total damages ranging from $750 to $30,000.
  • A maximum fine of $150,000 per infringed work

Evidently, getting involved in lawsuits is something that business owners do not want to face, the consequences when losing a lawsuit about copyright infringement is not small. Therefore, designers need to be careful when choosing the materials used to avoid copyright infringement. 

3. Tips to Avoid Copyright Infringement

To avoid Copyright Infringement, you have to do two actions: make your design, and use the materials legally. Below are some specific tips to teach you how to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts.

3.1 Check material for copyright before deciding to use it or not


In the first tip, you must check all material that you use on your design for copyright. It makes you know whether the material is copyrighted or not, then it helps you to avoid copyright infringement. Check material for copyright can show you the source of it, in some cases, you can get a permit to use it free from the author. 

If you are unsure about the copyright of a material, the best way to ensure it is to visit the Copyright Office. You can also search for copyright files. You can also use a reverse image search to find out where it came from.
You can refer How to Do a Copyright Search to know how to check the material for copyright.

3.2 Look for non-copyrighted materials.

The next tip on how to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts is to look for the non-copyrighted image in the Public Domain. 


All of the images, slogans, quotes, and graphics that you see in the public domain are free to use in your T-shirt designs. But, exactly, what is the public domain? Well, the domain contains creative material that is no longer protected by any copyright law, and you are free to use it without seeking permission. Such content in the public domain is typically donated, forfeited, or whose copyright has expired. So, feel free to use anything you find useful in the domain.

Some Public Domains you can access to get materials free: Pixabay, Wikipedia commons, Public domain picture, and Pexels.

The public domain isn't just made up of old things. Some artists willingly release their new, original work into the public domain. Others prefer to categorize their work differently.

3.3 Images with Royalty-Free status

To use a royalty-free image, you have to pay a one-time fee, and you have the comprehensive right to use it, and you never incur the additional royalties later. Along with it, the cost for these types of photos is quite cheap and easy to find on the internet. 

Are you looking for free T-shirt designs that can be used for commercial purposes? Some print-on-demand services also offer royalty-free images. CMSMART, for example, provides their customers with a library of royalty-free images. For your T-shirts, you can have any design printed on them.

Refer more royalty-free image providers The Top 15 Sites for Copyright and Royalty-Free Images

3.4 Using the elements are not protected by Copyright

Many elements are not eligible for protection of copyright that you can use for your t-shirt design. They are sharps, typography, calligraphy and some parts that are regulated as public domain are flags, national symbols, and coats of arms,...



National flags are considered public domain in the United States, therefore you can use them not afraid of copyright infringement. However, if the flags that redesign with non-geometric elements, they can be protected by copyright. If you use the original image, there is nothing to worry about, but if you use other designs, you should pay attention to this problem.

National symbols

In the United States, government works cannot be protected by copyright under 17 USC Section 105, so government works such as national symbols are allowed to be used without any permission, however that does not mean you are allowed to use someone else's work that incorporates the said flag, national symbol, or whatever.  

Coats of arms

In almost all cases, coats of arms are not copyrightable due to the fact that as a general rule, simply textual descriptions are not copyrightable. Therefore you completed using them for your design with no trouble, that means you won't be sued if you use them in your t-shirt design.  

3.5 Design fees must be paid

The most secure method is to simply purchase the design you want to print. Just make sure to get a legitimate license for your design. Here are three places to look for paid designs:


Images from Internet

Many providers in the market offer a stock image to download, but you must pay for it. You can choose pictures that you can use and buy them. Maybe some terms you must observe when using these pictures. In this way, you can use images legally at a cheap cost. Some providers you refer to for your business: Envato, Stock Photo Secrets Shop, iStock, and Adobe Stock. 

Employ a Graphic Designer

A graphic designer maybe gives you some unique designs. You can hire a freelancer or employee affordable your work. They will have more experience in it, so hiring a designer can make you save more money and more time to ensure you don’t copyright infringement. 

But it has some risks if you don’t determine the materials they use are copyrighted or not. Therefore you must ensure they don’t use it by using the contract. Otherwise, the result will be you be sued. This is a useful tip on how to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts.  But hiring a designer needs to pay more money. So if want to reduce the fee, you can refer to the way called “do it yourself” below.

Make existing designs your own by modifying them

You can change the design of any existing source as long as you follow the rules of fair use, according to the transformative copyright law. This law allows you to modify and create a copyright-free design by using a minor portion of the design. However, your changes should add something new, such as a new purpose or a different character, while not replacing the original use of the work.

If you are looking for an online design solution for your T-shirt idea, don't ignore Tshirt Solution with Online Design Tool. It is a tool that has many features that allow you to design easily. You are able to add, edit, and change fonts, images, colors, dimensions, orientations, rotations, and so on. You can get unlimited access to millions of images, templates, and icons that they can use to create whatever they want. Moreover, it’s easy to use without scripting and design skills needs.


Make your designs from the ground up

One of the best ways that help you avoid copyright infringement is to start from scratch with your designs. In this way, you will don’t worry about copyright t-shirt design problems. But, you are the owner of creative work and you must defend your works. In addition, many tools can help you design easily with no designing knowledge. You no longer need to be an expert in graphic design. Print-on-demand services provide you with a full interface for designing graphics to print on your items.

View more Top 10 T-Shirt Design Ideas For 2022


Copyright and copyright infringement are problems that you must know to avoid copyright infringement with T-shirts. You must face many consequences if you infringe on copyright. Then, some tips on how to avoid copyright infringement with t-shirts we give are very useful, you can use them to avoid t-shirt copyright infringement. 

The best tip to avoid copyright infringement is to make your design, you can do it yourself by using the useful design tool. The online design tool offered by CMSMART is all you need. Access DEMO to get experience with it.

Rose Helen

Shop Owner