Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: Copyrighted/Trademarked Material on T-Shirts ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Copyrighted/Trademarked Material on T-Shirts
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: verdad-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 15 Aug 2005 12:55 PDT
Expires: 14 Sep 2005 12:55 PDT
Question ID: 556050
Recently I have been thinking about making my own t-shirts (as in
buying shirts and transferring images onto them). They would not be
for sale. They would only be worn by me and maybe friends and family.

I want to know if it is legal to transfer copyrighted/trademarked
material (i.e. copyrighted pictures) onto a t-shirt to be worn

Also, I want to know if it is legal to transfer an original image
based on a copyrighted/trademarked material (i.e. original drawing of
a cartoon/video game character) onto a t-shirt to be worn publicly.
Subject: Re: Copyrighted/Trademarked Material on T-Shirts
Answered By: pafalafa-ga on 15 Aug 2005 19:28 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars

The answer to both your questions is "No....but..."

I'll explain in a moment.  But first, please be mindful of the
disclaimer at the bottom of the page, here.  I am not a legal
professional, and Google Answers is no substitute for competent
professional advice.

That said, a copyrighted image belongs to the copyright-holder and no
one else.  Virtually any reproduction and use of the image technically
requires the permission of the copyright-holder.

As the US Copyright Office itself puts it:



...Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of
copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the

...To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;

...To prepare derivative works based upon the work;

...To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary,
musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial,
graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a
motion picture or other audiovisual work...

As they say, the copyright owner has the "exclusive" right to the
image in most cases.  This most likely would pertain to your T-shirt
as well.

In actual practice, commercial violations of copyright are taken much
more seriously than a limited and non-commercial reproduction, such as
the one you are proposing.  It seems unlikely that a copyright-holder
would (a) become aware of your t-shirt or (b) pursue a case against

HOWEVER, they certainly could, if they so choose.   It's unlikely that
a case like this would ever go to court, but if it did, then the
courts may uphold the copyright holder, OR may decide that the
'violation' was so trivial that no damage was done OR EVEN that the
use consititues 'fair use' and doesn't really violate copyright at

But I'm guessing you'd rather not go down this path to find out for sure.  

Making use of a well-known image like a cartoon character gets into
issues of both copyright as well as trademark and perhaps even other
forms of legal protection.

But the basics still apply -- the image doesn't belong to you, so you
use it at your own risk.  However, a non-commercial use of an image is
far less likely to engender action than a commercial product that is
using a protected image.

I hope that gives you the information you need.  However, please don't
rate this answer until you are fully satisfied with the information
you've received.  If there's anything else I can do for you, just let
me know by posting a Request for Clarification, and I'm at your



search strategy -- Used bookmarked sites and my own knowledge of this area.

Request for Answer Clarification by verdad-ga on 16 Aug 2005 11:08 PDT
Thanks for the help. I am a little confused about one thing however.
You have provided that "the owner of copyright [has] the exclusive
right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

...To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;

...To prepare derivative works based upon the work;"

So does that mean that TECHNICALLY it would be illegal for me to draw
a picture of
Mickey Mouse right now, unless I had permission from Disney? Or would
the drawing be the property of Disney from the moment of its creation?

Clarification of Answer by pafalafa-ga on 16 Aug 2005 11:24 PDT
Interesting question.

I think the key word here is "technically"!

Many laws have a "de minimis" provision to keep from dealing with
trivial matters that might otherwise be construed as violations.  For
instance, it is illegal to steal things from the company you work for.
 But an occasional personal phone call -- even though it costs the
company money -- would probably be regarded as de minimis, and not an
actual theft.

As for drawing Mickey Mouse (or for that matter, even writing the
phrase "Mickey Mouse"), there is no clear-cut de minimis in
intellectual property law that I know of.  So  Yes, technically
speaking, Disney has a legitimate claim to a hand-drawn image of our
friend, Mickey.

In practice, I doubt that any court would want to deal with such a
trifling matter, and would probably through out any complaint made. 
In general, a copyright or trademark holder has to show that they've
actually been damaged by an unauthorized use in order to be taken
seriously in the courts.

However, just where the dividing line lies between a trifling use and
an actual infringement -- who knows?

Does that clear things up?

verdad-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
I am quite satisfied with the information given, thanks.

Subject: Re: Copyrighted/Trademarked Material on T-Shirts
From: ipfan-ga on 17 Aug 2005 10:18 PDT

Good answer.  As to your rhetorical query, "where [is] the dividing
line . . . between a trifling use and an actual infringement," I think
the fair use doctrine is as close as we have to an answer on that.  As
you know, the fair use doctrine, found at 17 U.S.C. Section 107, holds
that no permission is needed for purposes such as criticism, comment,
news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom
use), scholarship, or research, SUBJECT TO THE BELOW FACTORS:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use
is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to
the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of
the copyrighted work.

Thus, if one has used such a small amount such that a court would find
it, under 17 .S.C. Section 107 Factor (3), to be a fair use, that
might provide a dividing line of sorts.

The problem with that, though, is that a traditional de minimis
analysis is being questioned of late due to the prevalence of music
sampling.  As noted at

"Although the case is limited to digital music sampling, Bridgeport
Music at
gives some helpful insights into relevant aspects of copyright law. 
This case is representative of current trends disfavoring a "de
minimis" analysis in favor of a more traditional analysis under fair
use.  In other words, just because you use a very small portion of a
copyrighted composition and your use is thus de minimis, that alone
will not save you if under traditional fair use analysis you are still
liable for infringement."

So, how much can you use and not be liable?  As you wisely suggest,
I'd make sure my use was a fair use under ALL the factors and not rely
solely on a de minimis defense.

Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy