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The Fine Print: Let's talk about tees!

T-Shirt Design and Copyright Issues

There are so many opportunities to share ideas in our real time world. We know what’s happening across the globe instantaneously with full-color images and videos. We’ve got news and special interest alerts on our phones, laptops, tablets, and desktops. Viral memes can appear within minutes of a miraculous NFL touchdown or a politician tripping down the stairs. We are one seriously connected generation.

With the virtual free-for-all mentality of the Internet age, it’s difficult to navigate what’s legal to use when creating t-shirt art, particularly if it's for-profit. As a t-shirt designer, knowing what’s legal to use can save tons of time spent on creating art that ultimately would be illegal for a screen printer to print and a designer to sell.

Copyright infringement occurs when the infringing work is substantially similar to the copyrighted work. An example that received tons of attention was the famous Shepard Fairey HOPE image of Obama. Fairey was sued by The Associated Press for not obtaining a license even though it’s easy to assume since it was altered substantially, and thus “transformative,” it would have fallen under copyright fair use. The term transformative is purposefully ambiguous so it can be defended and fought over in a court of law if need be.

Transformative use is changing the copyrighted work to create a new expression of the work. Interestingly enough, parody falls right under this as well. A collage or artistic adaptation that recreates the copyrighted work can be considered transformative.

Copyright fair use examples are criticism, parody, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. For the purpose of custom t-shirts, parody and transformative works are really the only “possible” legal uses. Parody and transformative art can be tricky though since it’s subjective. Your personal views may be far different from the copyright holder's views. And, under fair use, the instance of use is worded as “limited.” That’s not exactly ideal if you want to sell a thousand shirts.

One of the earliest known popularized examples of transformative work was created by French artist, Marcel Duchamp. He made a parody of the Mona Lisa with a mustache entitled L.H.O.O.Q. He was able to easily do this because Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519 and copyright laws are only good for 70 years after the death of the creator in most cases. His mustachioed parody is protected in France until 2039, a full 70 years after Duchamp’s death. Even a parody of a parody can be considered copyright protected as soon as it’s in a fixed form.

It really depends on how the copyright holder views the works. Disney is notorious for having zero tolerance for any derivative use of their property. And it’s worth noting that Disney owns or has joint venture holdings in almost everything that can be termed popular culture.

For a t-shirt designer, the profits are not likely going to be worth the risk of copyright infringement. If you’re dead set on a design that you feel might be protected under copyright, you should reach out to the copyright holder and work on licensing. Some brands might even encourage parody works if it's not too derisive.

T-Shirts and the Science of Color

We know that color is created somewhere inside the brain. We actually construct color based on environmental prompts, but colors aren’t real physical properties of the object we’re looking at. Color only exists in our heads. Without our observation, there is an absence of color.

Because the experience of color is a personal event that goes on within our brains, color preference is also individualistic and often based upon emotion. We’re used to equating dark colors with negativity and bright colors with optimism. But this isn’t always the case. We’re taught throughout life what colors “means” by social reinforcement. When we’re little, pink is for girls and blue is for boys. It’s a rule.

We use emotion based color reinforcements in speech as well, like someone noticing you’re in a dark mood, or that we’re feeling blue to denote negativity. Or that we see life through rose colored glasses or that we’re going to paint the town red to denote positivity. There are plenty of exceptions though. For instance the statement, I saw red, is typically associated with extreme anger.

Colors and the emotional meanings behind them are truly subjective. Choosing a color to signify group identity can be based on emotion or practicality. The U.S. Army historically outfitted soldiers in fatigue green to camouflage them in hostile outdoor environments, a very practical decision. Pink for breast cancer awareness denotes femininity, but some antagonists argue that since pink reminds us of sugar and spice and everything nice, pink is a terrible color for this cause.

After understanding all of this, making a decision on what color t-shirt to use for your promotional event or business needs might seem a little more complex. Color is known to affect our buying habits, our level of trust, and even how we perceive competency.

For every test that says green is the color of movement, nature, and peace and that it should outperform another color to achieve a desired outcome, you’ll find tests that show the opposite. Why? Because color and the emotion associated with it is subjective. You can even go further and say it’s subjective and contextual. Just ask how people feel about the BP logo after the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

For us, t-shirts and the science of color is also subjective. But we see color through the lens of screen printers. We ask ourselves if the colors work well together and are they pleasing? We also evaluate whether the color combinations are going to result in a problematic print. For example, red dye used to colorize a t-shirt during the manufacturing process might seep into a white ink print. Finally, we evaluate t-shirt colors from an economical view point. Not all t-shirt colors cost the same to manufacture or cost the same to apply a screen print.

If you need help traversing the multifaceted journey of choosing the “right” t-shirt color for your design, event, or business needs, please reach out to our expert team.

Best DIY T-Shirt Mods on Instagram

We love customizing t-shirts, but it doesn’t have to stop with a great design and screen print. Making a personalized fashion statement with a great t-shirt, an imaginative mind, and a pair of scissors has been a popular trend for some time. We’ve scoured Instagram for proof of how versatile the simple t-shirt can be and we’ve found some brilliantly creative examples. Check out what we’re calling the Best DIY T-Shirt Mods on Instagram! Thank you to everyone who gave us permission to use their fabulous pics!

An essential sleeve fringe with relaxed neck t-shirt mod via kerstiii_bby.

An extra-long t-shirt made modern day punk rock via perfectingfaces.

Cool island fashion never looked so hot with this intricately braided cutup t-shirt via cut2athawaii.

A beautiful gothic skeleton style tee via sekhmetx.

Rocking the festival with this DIY extreme fringe t-shirt via terezamuckova.

An angelic take on a simple black tee via catalinammrr.

DIY Halloween themed t-shirt crafts made to look easy via srozz428.

Upcycling a t-shirt with lots of elegance via amandadeeanderson.

Front and back cutup t-shirt inspiration executed flawlessly via akaikyuketsuki.

Graceful and creative DIY t-shirt crafts via ayla.fawn.

Incredible fashion forward styling from a graphic tee via lunaticpandora.

A simple mod that turns this promotional t-shirt into a delightful fashion statement via equaltree.

Why did Companies Start Making Logos?

We recognize the word “logo” in modern terms as it relates to brand identity. Historically however, a logo would have been akin to a coat of arms or a hallmark identifying a specific manufacturer of goods or even the purity and standards of metals like silver and gold.

Via David Wright, Royal Coat of Arms - George III, Creative Commons License

Using specific marks to legitimize a product gained popularity during the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, a period where trade groups and commercial artistic houses were developing an identity that set them apart from similar artisans.

The oldest registered trademark or logo dates from 1876 and belongs to Bass Brewery. However competing Lowenbrau asserts the use of their iconic lion mark dating back to the 14th century. As ancient history carves out this portrait, we see the use of marks, symbols, and logos have been used to convey brand and product integrity, and to influence consumers about their choices when confronted with multiple options.

Sean Davis, Bass Pale Ale, Creative Commons License

Companies used a specific typeface well before the popularization of logos; think of the Coca-Cola typeface. But the combination of type and symbol to create a logo evolved along with literacy rates and the increasing availability of printing technology.

Brent Moore, Faded Coca-Cola sign, Creative Commons License

Creating an identifiable mark in and of itself is just the beginning though. Only a relatively small number of companies can be identified through their icon or symbol alone. Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Target, Shell, and Twitter are some examples. The notoriety of the symbols is of course directly related to market share and popularity of the brand. The actual design of a logo has to be carefully considered. After all, brand recognition is the entire point so a faulty design negates the entire mission.

Faye, Starbucks, Creative Commons License

Logos that have stood the test of time are often simple and bold representations that conceptualize the role and value of the brand. Some of the oldest logos that retain the majority of the original design are, DuPont, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Goodyear Tires, and Campbell’s.

Probably one of the most challenging tasks for a contemporary logo designer is to anticipate future technologies. The logo designer of Johnson & Johnson doubtfully could have anticipated the horizontally intense logo would not translate well on a tiny mobile phone screen compared to the packaging of a product.

Additionally, incorporating too much of the era in which the logo is designed is another challenge. In some cases this hasn’t mattered. An example is the Starbucks iconic mermaid or siren, based upon a 16th century Nordic woodcut. Adopted in 1971, she emulates the atmosphere of Seattle’s seaside past. But many trends quickly become overdone and oversaturated, think swooshy people that bend into the shape or concept the company is trying to get across.

Logos as brand advertisements typically don’t stand well independently. But use of logos around brand messaging or slogans can be an effective way to build familiarity with your brand. Most companies, regardless of their industry will use this messaging on promotional products and giveaways like t-shirts, cups, and pens. Cleverly crafted logos and slogans can even make such items highly coveted. Experts recommend the messaging be concise so that it can be memorized and linked to your brand. Slogan creation is an art and another subject in its own right. However, the combination of a winning logo and catchy slogan can be a brands best friend that translates well in the omnichannel world we live in today.