What is Copyright Infringement and Why Does it Matter to Screen Printers?  | Screenprinting.com

Copyright infringement can happen to anyone. Say a client asks you to print a design of a cup of coffee with the Starbucks logo on it. You may think it’s no big deal and grab its logo online and slap it on a t-shirt. A few months later, a cease and desist letter or email comes to you. Guess what? That Starbucks logo is copyrighted. Navigating copyrights is a bit tricky. Let’s dive in and define copyright and copyright infringement. Then we’ll see how it relates to screen printers.

an image in adobe illustrator of a snake reading "bring your art to life"


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.

Copyrighted mediums can be original or fixed. An original work is “independently created by a human author and [has] a minimal degree of creativity. Independent creation simply means that you create it yourself, without copying.” An example of original work is a design that you create & draw from your own imagination, without copying anyone else’s work. 

Now you know what original copyrighted mediums are. So what’s a fixed medium then? Fixed works are mediums that are captured “in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time.” For example, your screen printed an original design (the original work) onto a t-shirt, the permanent medium. This makes the t-shirt with artwork a fixed work. 


Copyrights last for decades, but the exact length depends on the specific work. Currently, works created on or after January 1, 1978, have the copyright of the author’s lifespan plus 70 years.

For anonymous work, copyright lasts for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever comes first.

Let’s use an example of anonymous work: Winnie the Pooh. The characters in Winnie the Pooh were created in 1926. According to FindLaw, these characters fell under the anonymous 95 years copyright law, which expired in 2022 (except for the character of Tigger, who has copyrights until January 2024). Now anyone can use the story, settings, or characters of Winnie the Pooh for their own purposes without repercussions.

Here’s a tricky one: Mickey Mouse. Everyone knows Disney doesn’t tolerate people using their copyrighted works without permission, especially everyone’s favorite mouse. However, the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse will expire in January 2024. According to Culture Slate, the trademark and more modern version of Mickey are still copyrighted, and users who come close to either of these will be shut down. If you want to print Mickey, you’ll need to make sure you’re printing the right mouse. 

Before we spiral into a rabbit hole of searching for popular characters becoming the public domain, let’s talk about what happens when you get it wrong.

a squeegee with yellow ink pulled across a screen


According to Forbes, “Copyright infringement occurs when the violating party exercises any of the creator’s exclusive rights to the work without permission.” 

Infringement can happen even if you’re not seeking monetary gain. Say you’re simply printing t-shirts for a family Disney trip. Those shirts still count as copyright infringement unless you get Disney’s permission to use their copyrighted artwork. 

There is a bright spot. According to Forbes, “Any argument against copyright infringement is usually considered stronger without a profit motive.” So if you’re only printing shirts for a family reunion or trip — and you don’t intend to sell them — you’re more likely to get off the hook. 

Examples of copyright infringement include illegally downloading music files, modifying & reproducing someone else’s work without significant changes, or selling merchandise that includes copyrighted images, text, or logos. 

Remember when you used to burn CDs or download music from bootleg sites? Copyright infringement. Printing the Coca-Cola logo on some sweatshirts without changing the design significantly is another example of copyright infringement. 

It might seem like you can’t avoid copying someone’s work, even if you don’t mean to. So how do you avoid copyright infringement?


a close up of a snake screen printed on a grey t-shirt


There are a few ways to avoid copyright infringement, but you’ll have to do your homework. Here are some popular methods:

Direct licensing: Every copyright has terms of use. Some of these are more stringent than others. By checking out the terms of use, you may notice that you can use a specific design by following the terms, or contact the copyright owner for permission to use it. Remember that the copyright owner maintains ownership of the copyrighted material.

Fair use: Designs can be used in specific circumstances, depending on the nature of the work and its secondary use purpose. Here are some examples:

  • If the design is for non-profit, educational purposes
  • If the design transforms the original work to change its purpose or character — like making the Coca-Cola logo a different color (the red Pantone is also trademarked) and changing the words in the logo
  • If the design only uses a limited portion of the work
  • If the design does not harm the copyright’s value 

Creative Commons licenses: This is “granted by a copyright owner to permit public use of a copyrighted work under specific conditions.” The copyright owner can stipulate the terms of this agreement. Digital packs have creative commons licenses. Say you want to use the Support Local Music Vector Pack to print some band merch. Scrolling through the product page, you’ll come across the Creative Commons License, which reads:

“Unlimited personal and commercial use of this graphic is allowed. You may not distribute the digital graphic to another party or modify the digital graphic for distribution (either for free or for monetary gain).”

That means if you buy the pack, you have the right to use it for whatever you’d like. But you cannot give the actual digital files to others.

The Public Domain: Remember the example of Winnie the Pooh? When the artwork is in the public domain, you can use it for whatever you’d like. Go ahead, make that horror version of Pooh and Piglet. One thing to remember is to always do your homework on whether a work is in the public domain. Not sure? Google it. 


a snake holding an arrow screen printed on a grey t-shirt

There’s much more to learn about copyright and copyright infringement. Next time, we’ll talk about how to protect your own works under copyright, and how to get the copyrights to other works, as well as more ways to use other works without committing copyright infringement.


  1. https://www.copyright.gov/what-is-copyright/ 
  2. https://www.findlaw.com/legalblogs/law-and-life/can-i-use-the-winnie-the-pooh-characters-to-make-my-own-stuff/#:~:text=Public%20Domain&text=For%20Pooh%20and%20his%20friends,anyone%20for%20virtually%20any%20purpose.
  3. https://www.cultureslate.com/explained/mickey-mouse-to-become-public-domain-in-2024#:~:text=On%20January%201%2C%202024%2C%20the,will%20be%20shut%20down%20instantly
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