eCom Starter Tips & Guides

Copyright in print on demand business – how to do it right


As a print on demand shop owner, copyright material can apply to you in two ways: 1) you are an artist and you create original artwork you don’t want others to rip off; 2) You would like to sell printed items with popular themes (TV show quotes, memes, timeless pictures) or other artwork that might be copyrighted. Keep reading to learn more about copyright and how to do it right when owning a print on demand business in both scenarios!

What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal right that protects creative work that is fixed in a tangible format. Copyright protects different kinds of creative work: photos, illustrations, paintings, musical compositions, sound recordings, books, poems, blog posts, movies, plays, etc. It is illegal to use copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright owner.

Interestingly, copyright does not exceed outside the creative field, for example, scientific work cannot be copyrighted (it needs to have proper citations though). Copyright also doesn’t protect ideas that are just in someone's head – they need to be made into something that is accessible to other people.

What objects copyright doesn’t cover?

A few things that copyright does not cover and you can use freely – titles, slogans, words, short phrases, lettering, and coloring. Copyright also doesn’t apply to systems, processes, concepts, principles, and discoveries. But to 100% avoid copyright infringement, it is best to always consult with a specialist when choosing to use any of the prior.

Global copyright law – Berne Convention

In 1886 ten European countries held a convention in Berne where they came to an agreement about how to legally protect creative, original work. It was the first step in copyright law. In 1989 the United States became a part of the Berne Convention, and as of today, most countries in the world are part of it.

Amongst other things, the convention states that all creative work that is made in one of the participating countries is copyright protected in all other Berne Convention countries. If you are a part of the Berne Convention, you don’t have to apply for copyright – it comes into force once the creative work is fixed, for example, written down, painted, sketched, etc.

Copyright law in different countries

Even though the Berne Convention gives guidelines and a basis for copyright law, it still can vary in different countries, for example, it can be more specific or more strict. In some countries, for example, U.S. you can register your copyright to make it easier for you to track if someone is using your copyright unlicensed or if there is a need for litigation. So always make sure you are up to date with the copyright law in the country you are creating or where you want to use the copyrighted material.

How to protect your work as a print on demand artist in the U.S.

If you are an artist who creates original work for your print on demand shop or otherwise, you are definitely interested in protecting your copyright rights, and avoiding people copying your designs and gaining profit from it. Let’s remember, that legally once you have created something original and made it into a tangible format (on paper, in a digital file, etc.) you automatically are the copyright owner of that creation. 

However, even though that is the law, sometimes it is not enough. Here are a few things you can do to enforce your copyright and make it rock solid!

Register your copyright

To avoid sticky situations with copyright infringement register your copyright material. It is not obligatory in the U.S. but it will help you feel more confident when it comes to your copyright rights. Here’s why:

  1. You will let people know that you are the prime copyright owner 

If you keep your copyrighted work to yourself, no one will know that you are the prime owner of that work. If you register your copyright, it helps you to avoid situations when someone rips off your work and states that they created it first. Be proud of your work, and register it as soon as you can!

  1. Other people can find your work and choose to not use it

If your artwork is registered, it is easy for other people to find it and check if their work is not violating the copyright law. This way you avoid indirect copyright infringement and everyone’s happy. You will also always have a place to reference if someone has questions about your copyright.

  1. It will be much easier for you to enforce a copyright lawsuit

Not a fun scenario, but one that you have to keep in mind. If your copyright is registered, it will be easy for you to prove your copyright rights and start a litigation process. 

However, having your copyright registered can also help you avoid going to court. People will know that they stand no chance and they won’t rip off your work or you will be able to settle things more quietly avoiding unnecessary stress and resources.

Add a copyright notice to your work

Adding a copyright notice to your work is just a precaution. Even without it, your work is copyrighted, whether you have registered it or not. However, adding the little copyright symbol, your name, and a year, can help you inform people that this material is copyrighted and that you are the owner.

How to safely use copyrighted material and avoid copyright infringement?

Now on to the other side, what to do if you are looking for ways how to use copyrighted material without putting in motion copyright law? There are a few ways, how you can go about it.

Find out if the work is copyrighted

First things first, you need to find out if the work you want to use is copyrighted. There are a few situations:

The work is created in the last 90 years 

If you are looking towards a creative work that is created in the last 90 years (measuring roughly), there is a big chance it is copyrighted. To check, visit the registered copyright database.

The work has entered the public domain

If the copyrighted work has entered the public domain, you can freely use the material. It happens in two ways:

  1. The author has died and 70 years after that has passed.
  2. The copyright owner has donated their work to the public domain.

The work has a copyright symbol added to it

If a work has a copyright symbol, it is a clear indication that it is protected by copyright law, and you should not even bother looking for jurisdiction.

Contact the owner

Copyright rights can be shared and the copyright owner might be interested in selling the use of their copyrighted work. To find out, contact the owner and ask for permission to use their creative work! There are different situations and the outcomes can be very diverse. The owner might not want to share the rights, the owner might have some specific conditions when you can use their work or the owner might share their work for a commission.

Exploit the public domain

Anything that’s in the public domain is free to use by anyone. Browse the internet and even physical archives to find such works and use them freely!

Expired copyright rights

Easily put – anything that is created before 1927 has an expired copyright license (except for audio recordings) and you can use it freely. Since vintage is having a comeback, there are definitely some ideas and materials that are print worthy from the time before 1927. Check what’s available and use what sparks your interest!

Donated copyrights

And then there are those exceptions when someone donates their work for public use. Any author can give up their copyright rights if they want and move their work into the public domain. To find such works you need to browse the public domain database and do some research, but it is definitely possible to find such gems.

Get inspired

Last but not least, you can use copyrighted ideas to create your own designs. For example, Walt Disney owns the copyright to Mickey the Mouse, but he does not own the rights to cartoons with animals acting as humans. So, you can review copyrighted work and get ideas for your own creations.

Consult with a copyright lawyer

If you really want to be on the safe side, you can always consult with a copyright lawyer. They can review the ideas you want to use or even do copyright research for you. When you consult with professionals in the field, it is sure that you won’t run into trouble and your business will be able to run smoothly.

What is the situation with hired creative workers – who owns the copyright?

If you hire someone to do creative work for your, for example, designs, copywriting, etc., the copyright rights belong to you. It is also applicable if an employee does creative work for you – it also belongs to the company, not the employee personally. However, to be sure and to avoid any confusion, it is best to add a paragraph about copyright transfer and rules in the contract and talk them out aloud with the hired person so everyone is on the same page.


If you are a print on demand shop owner, copyright is a subject you want to be educated about. Do your research, consult with specialists, and follow all the steps to comply with copyright law. It is better to have a moment to figure out what designs to sell rather than starting a business just for it to be shut down because of copyright infringement. It might sound scary at first, but we promise, start diving into the copyright world and you will get a hang of it! 

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