Screen printers are artists. Bringing a design from concept to garment is an artistic process. That art deserves to be protected. What’s worse than seeing a design you worked hard on get ripped off, and not being able to do anything about it? There’s a solution to protect your artwork: get it copyrighted. It seems daunting, but the process can help you protect your work.
WHAT IS A COPYRIGHT?
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a copyright is “a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression.” This can cover a variety of mediums, like paintings, songs, architectural works, books, movies, and so much more.
So the designs you create for screen printed t-shirts can be copyrighted, especially if the artwork stemmed from your imagination. Let’s talk about how to copyright your original work.
WHY SHOULD I COPYRIGHT MY WORK?
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation.”
All work that is registered as a copyright can be legally proven to be yours, and protected by law. While all work is copyrighted as soon as it’s created, it can only be litigated if it’s registered. Let’s say someone rips off your artwork and makes a killing off it. Want justice to prevail? The work needs to be copyrighted for you to receive compensation.
“Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work,” The U.S. Copyright Office notes.
HOW TO COPYRIGHT WORK
The word “copyright” sounds a bit scary. You’ve probably heard of businesses going under because of copyright infringement cases. Remember Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby?” The hit song samples bass lines from “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. Vanilla Ice lost the case. According to Abou Naja, “The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money, with both Queen and Bowie receiving songwriting credit.”
So you might not be going after #1 hit songs that copy your work. But having your art protected by law can make a big difference, even if it’s simply in peace of mind. Registering your work to be copyrighted takes a couple of steps: submit an application, pay a filing fee, and provide a copy of the work you want to register.
Want to register multiple works? According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “The general rule is that a separate application for registration should be submitted for each work together with a separate filing fee and deposit copy.”
Applications may be submitted either through the Office’s electronic registration system or on a paper application. The Office encourages applicants to submit these online since those applications generally are processed more quickly than paper applications.
Let’s say you’ve created a super rad design. You know it’s fantastic, and want to get it copyrighted so others can’t steal your artwork for free. Simply submit an application to the U.S. Copyright Office, pay the fee, and provide a copy of the work. This can be done from your computer, when you’re waiting for screens to dry, or taking care of some business before starting a print run.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND COPYRIGHTS
In today’s world of emerging Artificial Intelligence, everyone in the creative industry is wondering what happens next. If art is created by AI, who owns it? The answer: the individual whose idea the artwork was owns the copyrights.
Let’s break this down. Say you have a great art idea and want to use AI to make it come to life. You prompt the AI to generate the art, and then select the option you want to use. That artwork is yours. It does not belong to the AI. Since the art was your idea, the copyrights belong to you.
However, when submitting an AI-generated work for copyrighting, you need to disclose that information. According to Copyright.gov, “Applicants have a duty to disclose the inclusion of AI-generated content in works submitted for registration.”
Here’s some more information:
“Individuals who use AI technology in creating work may claim copyright protection for their own contributions to that work. They must use the Standard Application, 39 and in it identify the author(s) and provide a brief statement in the ‘Author Created’ field that describes the authorship that was contributed by a human.”
Referring to the example earlier: the artwork you created with the help of AI belongs to you, but it wasn’t completely from your own imagination. By stating which pieces of the artwork — or which part of the process the AI helped you with — you’re simply stating how much of the work you created yourself.
According to Copyright.gov, “An applicant who creatively arranges the human and non-human content within a work should fill out the ‘Author Created’ field to claim: ‘Selection, coordination, and arrangement of [describe human-authored content] created by the author and [describe AI content] generated by artificial intelligence.’”
By specifying which part of the work the AI helped you with, you’re not giving it copyrights. You’re just being honest about the creative process that led you there. Think of it like giving photo credit in an Instagram post to the original poster. The caption, filters, and other parts of the post are yours, but the original image is not.
Copyright.gov says, “Applicants should not list an AI technology or the company that provided it as an author or co-author simply because they used it when creating their work.”
If you love to use AI to help create, generate away: if it’s originally your idea, it’s yours to copyright.
ACCIDENTAL COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT
If someone copies your idea that has been copyrighted, you can crack down on them for it. But what if you accidentally copy someone’s original work? You may not have meant to, or even know you were doing it.
According to Revision Legal, Some of the most common circumstances, when accidental/innocent copyright infringement happens are when a person is unaware of copyright law, believes that their original work doesn’t fall under that law, or misunderstands the license granted by the owner. Copyright owners tend to be pretty protective of their rights — think about Disney or Starbucks — and sometimes send cease and desist letters before investigating whether the copyright infringement was actually infringement.
“Copyright owners know that the law favors them and, if they prevail in their copyright infringement litigation, the infringer will be ordered to pay substantial monetary damages. $150,000 in statutory damages can be awarded PER infringement and the infringer can be required to pay the copyright owner’s attorney’s fees and court costs. So, a person can end up facing copyright infringement litigation long before the person can demonstrate that the infringement was accidental and/or innocent,” Revision Legal said.
Infringing on copyrights is no small act. If you’re using artwork that didn’t come from your brain, make sure you can use it in the way you want to. Accidental infringement can happen though. Say you create a design, draw it out, and screen print it. A few days later, you get a cease and desist letter from someone claiming you infringed on their copyrights. You didn’t even know this person or artwork existed.
According to Patterson Thuente Law, “In innocent infringement cases, the courts can reduce an award to $200. This is a much smaller amount than the courts can order infringing parties to pay when they intentionally or accidentally use protected work.”
Protecting your own artwork is important, especially if you think people are going to use it for their own use, or if you notice people stealing your work. Using AI to generate content grants copyrights to the person whose idea it was, not the AI. Take steps to protect your artwork, and try to keep others’ work in mind as you create.