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I searched for public domain images on Wikipedia for my t-shirts. Here is an example public domain image. The permission section for the image says:

This image consists only of simple geometric shapes or text. It does not meet the threshold of originality needed for copyright protection, and is therefore in the public domain.

So is it really safe for me to use that image for commercial purposes? If no, why they call it a public domain image?

P.S: large companies can use music band logos for printing business as indicated in this article. (I couldn't figure out if article is missing a point)

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  • Hello and welcome to the site! This is general law question and so should be asked at Law. – curiousdannii Aug 30 '18 at 0:49
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    The copyright status applies to the creative work, e.g. the computer file that stores the logo. The word Marvel and perhaps the lettering style is trademarked, though. For example, you could create your own drawing of the Marvel logo and that would be copyrighted to you, but it would still be the Marvel logo; it would be still be someone else's trademark. – Brandin Aug 30 '18 at 10:12
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No, it is certainly not legally safe to sell a shirt with such an image printed on it. There are two compatible facts to consider:

  1. Wikipedia is correct that the image is not covered by copyright in the United States.
  2. The image is likely protected by trademark law, which Wikipedia also notes, directly under the public domain information:

    This work includes material that may be protected as a trademark in some jurisdictions. If you want to use it, you have to ensure that you have the legal right to do so and that you do not infringe any trademark rights.

Copyright

Copyright provides a monopoly on the reproduction of creative works, but copyright only applies to sufficiently creative works. In cases such as these, Wikipedia is expressing the opinion that the work in question is too simple or too utilitarian to meet the threshold of originality and/or creativity for copyright. For the U.S. specifically, consider 37 CFR 202.1 which enumerates some categories of work excluded from copyright protection:

The following are examples of works not subject to copyright and applications for registration of such works cannot be entertained:

(a) Words and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring; mere listing of ingredients or contents;

[...]

(e) Typeface as typeface.

Category (a) excludes the word "Marvel" or "Nirvana" from copyright protection, while category (e) excludes the creative choices that went into the styling of the text. (Note that fonts -- the software that creates/renders a typeface on a page -- are copyrightable in the U.S., but a font's "output" of typefaced text is not similarly protected.)

Therefore, in the U.S., that "Marvel" image is likely not copyrightable, since it is just a single word with a particular stylized typeface (the use of which does not make it copyright-eligible either). This may be different from other jurisdictions, some which do recognize the use of the typeface as protectable element under copyright.

Trademark

Trademark law is a completely distinct area of law that applies to the use of logos, phrases, and other elements to identify a vendor in commerce. The words "Toyota" and "Camry" are not eligible for copyright protection, but the government affords the Toyota Motor Corporation a monopoly on the use of those words to identify the source and model of a car. If you built your own car and tried to attached the name "Toyota Camry" to it without their permission, you would be liable for trademark infringement.

Similarly, logos that are too simple to qualify for copyright may still be covered by trademark law, if the company has registered them as trademarks or otherwise uses them distinctively in trade. This is likely the case here. If you put that rectangular Marvel logo on a shirt, you would be misrepresenting your product as being authorized by Marvel Entertainment and be liable for trademark infringement.

  • An additional unsafeness is that a person can simply claim to be the copyright holder, and post a protected image. – user6726 Aug 30 '18 at 20:24
  • @apsillers, Two Questions: Q1- if so, I think when an image becomes trademarked, it will no longer be in public domain and hence Wikipedia shouldn't say that it is public domain, am I wrong? , Q2- as I understand, I can't use Marvel Logo, but I can find a free font, and write MARVEL with it (a not trademarked version) on print it on a t-shirt to sell. (Is this what H&M and other apparel companies doing in the article I mentioned in my question?) – HOY Aug 30 '18 at 21:54
  • @HOY Q1: it is in the copyright public domain. If you used the work in a way that clearly didn't suggest commercial association with Marvel (nor confuse customers into thinking there was an association), then you could use it. For example, if you changed the letters to say "BORING" in the same style because you think Marvel's comics are boring, then Marvel could not win a copyright suit against you (whereas a derivative of a proper copyrighted work could leave you liable), nor could they win a trademark suit because Marvel doesn't make shirt to insult their own company. – apsillers Aug 30 '18 at 23:58
  • @HOY Q2: No, that would still be a trademark violation because it is confusingly similar to the real trademark. (If I made made a search engine called "Goggle", or called it something different but used Google's logo font and colors, I am sure I could expect a call from Google's lawyers.) Those t-shirt manufacturers either have a licensing agreement (the shirts actually are authorized by Marvel) or they're simply committing trademark infringement and hoping that no one notices. – apsillers Aug 31 '18 at 0:02
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    @HOY The standard is whether a court would consider your logo to be "confusingly similar" for consumers. If a reasonable person, seeing the shirt, could easily conclude, "This shirt must not have been made by Marvel Entertainment," then you're in the clear. I'm not sure your proposed option meets that standard. (And beware Marvel may try suing you regardless, because if a trademark holder allows too much unauthorized use, they can lose their trademark. Trademarks are designed to protect consumers, to know source of goods; a trademark holder who allows misuse has failed to protect consumers.) – apsillers Aug 31 '18 at 15:53
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No, its "not safe" for you to use. If you look at the bottom of the image, it specifically states

This work includes material that may be protected as a trademark in some jurisdictions. If you want to use it, you have to ensure that you have the legal right to do so and that you do not infringe any trademark rights.

The image in question is, of-course, a well known trademark, so in order to use it "safely" you need to get permission from the trademark owner. As MARVEL appears to be owned by DISNEY, you might want to consider this high risk. Disney is a company which (informally) [has enough power to buy laws][1].

You are probably breaking a raft of laws. Assuming you are in the USA, I found 15 U.S. Code § 1114 - Remedies; infringement; innocent infringement by printers and publishers without looking hard at all which states:

(1) Any person who shall, without the consent of the registrant— (a) use in commerce any reproduction, counterfeit, copy, or colorable imitation of a registered mark in connection with the sale, offering for sale, distribution, or advertising of any goods or services on or in connection with which such use is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive; or (b) reproduce, counterfeit, copy, or colorably imitate a registered mark and apply such reproduction, counterfeit, copy, or colorable imitation to labels, signs, prints, packages, wrappers, receptacles or advertisements intended to be used in commerce upon or in connection with the sale, offering for sale, distribution, or advertising of goods or services on or in connection with which such use is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive, shall be liable in a civil action by the registrant for the remedies hereinafter provided. Under subsection (b) hereof, the registrant shall not be entitled to recover profits or damages unless the acts have been committed with knowledge that such imitation is intended to be used to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive.

And things only get worse from there...

https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/15/1114

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    A decent answer to this question should discuss the difference between trademark and copyright, and should address "If no, why they call it a public domain image?" – phoog Aug 30 '18 at 4:39
  • @phoog We await your answer then! – davidgo Aug 30 '18 at 4:47

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