Two things are great gold mines for any businesses- famous celebrities and well-known brands.
When a famous sports brand such as Nike for example, launches a new release, those pair of rubbers are sold out within hours.
When you mention Kanye West in a conversation or in a blog post, it immediately makes it more interesting and captivating.
Celebrities and Famous Brands both have very high intrinsic monetary value due especially to their influence and credibility, among other factors.
Sounds like an easy path to glory for your print-on-demand store? Not so fast. Although very lucrative, they can be a time bomb for many legal repercussions.
That’s why in an attempt to get past the bars, many POD store owners ask questions such as How to legally use celebrities and brands for your print on demand designs.
Legal Awareness is Important for your POD business
Because of the internet’s accessibility, it’s pretty easy to search and save celebrity photos whenever you want to.
In fact, with the rise of social media, people have gotten exclusive access to celebrities’ personal lives and private photos.
It’s easier than ever to search images of celebrities or popular products Google and then save, edit, upload, print, and monetize them into a merch product.
But that in itself is a recipe for a crime.
Most of these practices are illegal and can be considered as ground for Intellectual Property Rights/Copyright/Trademark infringement.
In this article, we will be tackling about the rights that protect these properties, the legal consequence that you can incur when you violate them, and measures you can take to escape these horrors.
As a business owner, it’s especially important to know your rights and limitations when it comes to your POD business.
And as a citizen, it’s important to know and understand that laws that govern your state, especially the ones that could directly involve you, your lifestyle, and your business.
Disclaimer: We are not lawyers, and this is in no way a legal advice or a substitute for legal advice. If you are dealing with legal issues with regards to your design business, it’s best to obtain proper legal counsel.
Using Celebrity Images for My Shirt Designs
Can I use celebrity Images for my shirt designs?
The short answer is a big NO.
Unless you have the authorization, agreement, and contract with rights and limitations in doing so from the celebrity/ his/her management/agent, then you have no legal right to use and especially print and make sales off of a celebrity’s image.
Celebrities generally have two rights that protect them from using their images without their permission: Right of Privacy and Right of Publicity.
Right of Privacy
Every person has the right of privacy, and whether you’re a celebrity or not, the federal courts protect you of this right.
So if you think someone is violating you of the right of privacy, then yes you can file a dispute and sue them.
The states protect everyone from interference or attacks.
Celebrities can sue brands or business that use their images and give them unconsented publicity without permission.
They can claim their right of privacy in courts against these businesses.
So what about those that use celebrity images for promotional purposes?
Businesses that are legally allowed to do this have entered into contracts with these celebrities wherein limitations are outlined, along with the royalty/compensation that the celebrity gets from the sale of items/ from the advertisement itself.
If you decide on using celebrities for endorsement purposes, make sure that your brand can generate enough sales to compensate for their payments.
Right of Publicity
The reason that many celebrities, their managements, and agents protect the use of their image is pretty obvious- they don’t want to be demonetized.
Promoting your brand using Kim Kardashian’s face versus promoting it with a Stock Image of a woman that’s just as physically attractive isn’t obviously going to deliver the same results.
The former has a significant monetary value. Hence, celebrities are pretty adamant in protecting the use of their image.
When people possess monetary value because of their line of work, i.e. athletes, singers, actors, or even many social media stars attain their right of publicity, in order to protect their images from being exploited.
Celebrities can use their own value to their own interest as much as they want. But their right to publicity limits you from putting their faces on your merch designs.
When celebrities sue companies, they prove that their image has monetary value.
Even if a celebrity is deceased, they can pass the right of publicity to their successors.
Therefore the deceased celebrity’s representative of his or her estate has the right to authorize anyone who wants to use the celebrity’s image for merchandise.
Intellectual Property Rights from the Image Owner
If you use a celebrity’s photo that you’ve taken from the internet, you did not just violate the celebrity’s right, but also the image owner/photographer’s right.
In the United States, Intellectual property rights are well-protected by the federal government.
Two important kinds of intellectual property that impact shirt designers are trademark and copyright.
Although people are already leniently sharing photos on social media, this does not mean that we’re no longer taking copyrights seriously.
Copyright owners to the photo don’t have to register all the images they’ve taken from celebrities.
However, they still have the rightful ownership of the photo. Even if you’ve asked permission from them to use their image in a school presentation, using their images for financial gain is an entirely different story.
When you’re making money off of their images, they need to get a royalty from that amount too.
Bottomline is- using celebrities’ images for t-shirt design is a big NO.
Whether it’s a parody, satire, or even a personal drawing of their image.
If you insist on using this argument, you may have to prove in court that your work is entirely your own property.
Imitating famous Brands for My shirt Designs
Another way to make it on top of the charts is to sell that famous jacket or shirt design launched by a designer brand.
Especially when the designs are fairly easy to imitate, knock-off goods can get reproduced pretty easily in the market.
Is it legal to imitate famous brands? Pretty obviously, the answer is No.
Most Print on Demand platforms have restrictions that do not allow you to sell counterfeit goods.
Selling these goods infringe on intellectual property rights such as copyright, patent, or trademark of the brand owner.
Under trademark laws, selling counterfeit goods that are of inferior quality is permitted provided that you do not confuse buyers.
If you disclose that your products are counterfeit/ imitated, then some trademark laws allow you to release them in the market.
But for other platforms such as Amazon, they have an Anti-Counterfeiting policy that strictly prohibits the sale of counterfeit products.
Doing Sales the Right Way
So how do you legally use celebrities and brands for your Print on Demand Designs?
Having huge numbers of sales does not compensate being sued with $200,000 plus shutting down your business.
Here’s how you can still make money for your print on demand store from their influence, fame, and credibility without having to get sued:
1. Get a reference from Celebrities’ Iconic quotes and Sayings Instead
Remember when Kim K showed the world how she was so into California-chick-surfing one day?
While Kim Kardashian West may have the legal right to her images plastered all over the internet, we may have access to her iconic “Kowabunga dudettes” tweet.
Unless, of course, one day she patents the statement on a makeup line, then that may be a different story.
When celebrity sayings in interviews and tweets become viral, they become your perfect monetizing opportunity for your T-shirt design.
Think about famous tweets and sayings that people very easily attribute to famous celebrities.
Here’s the catch: Be creative and make sure to make your own statement.
Using exact quotes that you did not say yourself may be infringing on someone else’s rights.
Just make sure to curate something where people still understand the reference.
Then make sure to check if your statement is copyrighted or not.
2. Take advantage of Political Figure’s Fair Use Classification
While using celebrities may be a mortal sin on your t-shirt designs, national symbols, flags, and political figures are generally considered public domain and are in the fair game.
Making shirts for political figures are generally a safe way to sell tees.
To add to that, elected officials gave up their right to publicity when they take office so there’s very little chances of suing you for a t-shirt.
Regardless, make sure not to make shirts that are way over the board/ are defaming.
You also can’t make shirts that look like the politicians are endorsing your products.
Another thing is to make sure that your resources are obtained legally.
If you use a photo from the internet that is owned by someone else, you are still infringing someone else’s intellectual property rights.
In order to obtain photos from the internet legally, you may want to use these tips:
- Source copyright free images of politicians from
- the US Government (considered as public domain)
- The Commons at Flickr
- Getty Images
- Any image created before year 1923 (no longer protected by copyright laws)
3. Make a parody of Famous Brand Designs
By all means- skip making counterfeit imitations of famous brand designs.
You likely won’t get your item published in your POD site anyway.
Instead, you can make a satire/parody of famous brand themes that make people understand the reference.
For example, an “Anti Capitalist Socialist Club” shirt by Elizabeth Hudy in RedBubble is an incredible political parody for the streetwear brand Anti Social Social Club by Neek Lurk.
The key is to show the intent to the sellers that your merch is a parody of the brand.
It’s in no way an imitation of a brand, or an authentic product from the brand.
Logos and exact statements from existing brands are also strictly prohibited.
Make sure to not use existing parody statements from the brand that could potentially be an infringement of copyright.
Can I sell authentic products in my Merch Store?
How can I buy authentic Adidas Shirts at a wholesale, discounted price and sell it in my merch store?
The answer is you can’t.
Established brands and businesses make it entirely difficult for anyone to bargain with their prices, even if you have the intention to resell it.
If you want to sell authentic brands in your store, you can apply to be an authorized reseller.
However the application may be a tedious process, which involves numerous requirements such as having a physical store.
Some people decide to “hoard” products from authentic brands with the intention to resell it.
While this may not be illegal to do, there may be certain repercussions.
If you’re not an authorized reseller, your buyers can’t obtain return or warranty rights for the products that they bought from you.
In other states, reselling without permission from the brand may be a violation of Federal export restrictions.
Again, this is not a substitute for proper legal advice.
In challenging situations, only the court can decide what is “fair use”.
If you need to take proper legal action, it’s best to contact and Intellectual property lawyer.
Famous celebrities and big brands definitely make up for a sure path for success.
In an ideal world, it’s easy to make money in no time by putting anything of value to your merch designs.
However, irresponsible entrepreneurship can set you up for danger.
For the risk takers who take no precaution despite existing rights, they’re setting themselves up for a legal battle.
But now that you’re aware of your rights and limitations for your t-shirt design business, you can definitely find your way in the spotlight without getting in trouble!