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T-Shirts Print-On-Demand and Copyrights

T-Shirts Print-On-Demand and Copyrights

Print-on-demand platforms make it easy to upload and print designs and create customized items.

In fact, they make it so easy that many sellers do not create their own t-shirt designs. Instead, they copy images that have copyrights and trademarks attached to them in a business model that too often violates intellectual property rights.


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What is print-on-demand

Print-on-demand companies enable sellers to start an online store. Sellers upload designs, and when a customer makes a purchase, the print-on-demand platform prints the artwork onto the products and fulfills the order.

From T-shirts to hoodies and underwear, and from mugs to water bottles, notebooks and face masks – you can make it your own.

Digital printing technology has many advantages. It allows anyone with a creative idea and an internet connection to start a business and offer merchandise to customers globally. All with no inventory or overhead.

Print-on-demand grew to a multibillion-dollar global industry. Companies like Printify, Printful, Gooten, and TeeLaunch offer print-on-demand fulfillment for sellers who want to sell via Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Etsy, or their own e-commerce store.

Print-on-demand sites like Redbubble, Teepublic, TeeSpring, and Zazzle are where sellers display their merchandise and customers go to buy products. Some platforms, like GearLaunch, offer to handle orders, logistics, and customer service.


Print-on-demand and IP

The digital printing technology also creates an IP issue: Copyrights and trademarks are often violated in the process. Intellectual property rights mean that only the owner has the legal right to copy and reproduce the protected work. No one can use anyone’s intellectual property without the owner’s permission.

Print-on-demand companies give customers an easy way to use every design, including designs with intellectual property attached to them. Not all sales involve IP infringements, and print-on-demand platforms are a great avenue for creativity. Yet counterfeit sales are very common.

As the market grows, so does the scale of the problem for IP owners. Third parties unlawfully violate their copyrights and trademarks, and rightsholders have no control over how their intellectual property is used, they do not profit from it, and it damages their merchandising efforts.


Print-on-demand questions

Print-on-demand companies transform or help transform digital files into physical prints on items. They are not the manufacturers or sellers of the merchandise.

The question is whether they are nothing more than hosts that hold no responsibility for the prints. How significant is it if they do the printing or outsource it to a third party? What if they also offer logistics or customer service?

Is being passive the best test for responsibility? Does it matter if the platform keeps 70-90 percent of the sale like Redbubble generally does? And what if the platform implements tools to track IP infringements? Does it affect its liability?


T-Shirt Print-On-Demand & Copyrights


The status of print-on-demand

In the U.S., the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) from 1998 protects copyrighted works. However, it also shields online platforms from liability for copyright infringement for hosting user-uploaded digital content.

The safe harbor is granted if online service providers fulfill certain requirements, such as remove or block access to infringing materials after copyright holders or their representatives give appropriate notice.

The DMCA does not apply to trademarks. Therefore, it does not protect trademark violations such as copied company names and logos. These are protected under The Lanham Act.


Print-on-demand lawsuits

Rightsholders often have to look and find cases of infringement and send takedown requests to the relevant platform. They can also file a lawsuit.

Several lawsuits dealt with copyrights and print-on-demand. The role print-on-demand companies have in turning digital files into physical products can make them responsible.

In Greg Young Publishing, Inc. v. Zazzle, Inc., the court held that Zazzle qualified for protection for displaying user-supplied copyrighted photos on its site,  but not for its role in the manufacturing and shipping of the physical items containing the photos.

Courts also protect trademarks. In 2018, motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson won a federal lawsuit against SunFrog, a print-on-demand website.

Harley-Davidson filed the lawsuit regarding items that bear its trademarks. The judge referred to the successful SunFrog business and said, “SunFrog cannot build a business around promoting and manufacturing infringing designs and then be freed from liability merely because it offers a notice-and-takedown procedure…”

This may not be the case if a third-party handles manufacturing rather than the print-on-demand platform. In 2019, Redbubble was found not to be liable for selling unlicensed Ohio State University merchandise although the items infringed on the university’s trademarks.

This decision was reversed recently and the court said, “It’s true that Redbubble facilitates the creation of goods bearing OSU’s marks that would not have existed but for Redbubble.

And that’s why we disagree with the district court’s ruling that Redbubble could not be liable because of its similarity to Amazon, eBay, and other passive online marketplaces.”

Another 2021 ruling refers to Pixels, a print-on-demand online marketplace. Third-parties upload images and Pixels takes care of everything else, including printing, packaging, shipping, and collecting payments from the buyers.

The court concluded that Pixels is not liable and in fact protected under the DMCA safe harbor. The liable parties in this case are almost certainly the sellers who uploaded the photos to Pixels’ website.


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Intellectual property protection

It is not enough to find and report IP infringements to a platform like Amazon, Etsy, or Redbubble once.

It takes ongoing efforts when new violations appear. Protecting copyrights and trademarks requires continuous scanning, detecting, analyzing and enforcing IP rights in various platforms.

You need to constantly look into many different platforms, with millions of sellers designing and selling merchandise. Many of the sellers are based overseas, although they sell on big print-on-demand platforms.

Often it is virtually impossible to find their location or fulfillment center. Phone calls, emails and other ways of communication get nowhere.

If you are asking yourself how to protect your intellectual property online, Wiser Market’s cutting-edge technology and dedicated team is the answer.

Our advanced monitoring system scans multiple digital channels, detecting IP infringements that may affect your rights. As an online brand protection agency, we use unique eCommerce know-how and advance technology to ensure that IP infringements are taken down quickly and efficiently.


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