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Can I Make T-Shirts With Copyrighted Characters?: Real Cases of Intellectual Property Infringement in the Clothing Decorating Industry

Can I Make T-Shirts With Copyrighted Characters?: Real Cases of Intellectual Property Infringement in the Clothing Decorating Industry

The clothing decorating industry is booming with innovations like Direct to Film (DTF), Screen Printing, Direct to Garment (DTG), Sublimation, and Vinyl. Marketplaces such as Etsy offer a convenient platform for selling clothing adorned with a range of designs and seemingly endless files that allow you to make your own clothing. But it's crucial to remember that just because a design can be bought or sold online doesn't mean it's free from legal constraints. Armor Ink, specializing in DTF solutions, brings you this critical piece on the risks of copyright and trademark infringement, featuring real-life legal cases.

Intellectual Property Laws in a Nutshell

Before we dive into the case studies, it's worth understanding two key aspects of intellectual property laws: copyright and trademarks.

- Copyright Law: Original works of authorship are protected under U.S. Copyright Law from the moment they are created and fixed in a tangible form.

- Trademark Law: Governed by the Lanham Act in the U.S., trademarks protect symbols, names, and slogans used to identify goods or services.

Potential Fines and Penalties For Copyright Infringement

  • Statutory Damages: For each work infringed upon, the law allows for statutory damages ranging from $750 to $30,000. If the court finds that the infringement was committed willfully, this amount can go up to $150,000 per work infringed.

Potential Fines and Penalties For Trademark Infringement

  • Financial Damages: Fines can range from a few thousand dollars to millions depending on the scale of the infringement, the level of intent, and the lost revenue or harm caused to the trademark owner.

  • Legal Fees: Apart from the fine, you may also be required to pay for the legal fees of the other party, adding more financial burden.

Real-Life Case Studies

Let's take a closer look at instances where famous brands took legal action against companies for unlawfully using their characters, logos, or other intellectual properties on clothing.
Disney vs. Powell
- Disney sued Powell for selling T-shirts featuring unauthorized illustrations of Disney characters. The court ruled in favor of Disney, forcing Powell to withdraw the merchandise and pay damages.
NFL vs. T-shirt Entrepreneurs
- The NFL regularly files lawsuits against small vendors and businesses selling unlicensed apparel featuring NFL team logos. Successful cases result in the removal of products, hefty fines, and potential seizure of equipment.
Nike vs. MSCHF over 'Satan Shoes'
- MSCHF modified Nike's Air Max 97 shoes, adding a drop of human blood and branding them as 'Satan Shoes'. Nike sued MSCHF for trademark infringement, and the court ordered a temporary restraining order, ultimately leading to a settlement where MSCHF agreed to a voluntary recall.
Gucci vs. Forever 21

- Gucci sued Forever 21 for using a stripe design that was strikingly similar to Gucci's trademarked stripe design. The court ruled in favor of Gucci, resulting in Forever 21 having to remove all offending products from sale.

What You Should Consider

1. Get Licensed: Always obtain proper licensing agreements if you intend to use copyrighted or trademarked materials.

2. Due Diligence: Ensure the designs you purchase or sell are either original or licensed for resale.  Do not assume that since its online at a reputable marketplace that it is legitimate.

3. Be Informed: Platforms like Etsy have strict policies about selling items that infringe upon copyright or trademark law, but in general they do not enforce it unless the copyright holder files against a listing.

4. Seek Legal Counsel: Consult a qualified attorney if you’re unsure about the legality of using certain designs.


At Armor Ink, we are committed to fostering a culture of innovation, quality, and respect for intellectual property laws. Remember, skirting these laws not only risks legal repercussions but also undermines the efforts and creativity of artists and designers.  

*Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for educational purposes only and is a brief overview that can not possibly substitute for legal advice.  Please seek out legal advice for your specific situation.*
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