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If I were to order custom t-shirts from a t-shirt printing company with some copyrighted brand on them, (when) would it be legally OK for me to do so without the copyright owner's permission?

  • Is it legal if I do not distribute them to others at all?
  • Is it legal if I give them to my family/relatives for free, e.g. as a gift?
  • Is it legal if I give them away to others for free (meaning I'm losing my own money on them)?
  • Is it legal if I sell them to others at-cost (i.e. for the same price I obtained them, meaning I'm not making any money from them)?
  • If the answer is "yes" to any of the above, can the copyright holder explicitly prohibit me from doing so, or would such a prohibition be unenforceable (e.g. if this would be fair use)?
  • Any other factors that are relevant but which I'm forgetting?

It's hard for me to tell, because copyright seems to be about "commercial" use, but none of these seems to be commercial use to me, yet I don't know if I'm interpreting the law correctly.

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    The issue is trademark, not copyright. And add to the list of questions the shop taking your money in exchange. – jqning Oct 7 '15 at 0:48
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First, copyright does not apply to "brands".

Copyright exists in literary works which includes art - a picture (any picture) usually has a copyright belonging to the creator of the picture. Brands are protected by Trade Marks. To be clear:

  • A picture of you is protected by copyright belonging to the creator
  • The phrase "Mickey Mouse" is protected by trade mark belonging to the Disney corporation
  • A picture of Micky Mouse is protected by copyright and trade mark.

(when) would it be legally OK for me to do so without the copyright owner's permission?

You can use copyright material without permission if you meet the fair use criteria in your jurisdiction. You can use trade marks if there is no risk of people confusing your goods and services with the trade mark holder's and you do not cause damage (including loss of potential income) to the trade mark holder or it is fair use (e.g. you are writing a review of a Micky Mouse cartoon).

Is it legal if I do not distribute them to others at all?

No, this would be OK as copyright fair use, but not as trade mark fair use.

Is it legal if I give them to my family/relatives for free, e.g. as a gift?

No, not fair use for either copyright or trade mark.

Is it legal if I give them away to others for free (meaning I'm losing my own money on them)?

No, see above.

Is it legal if I sell them to others at-cost (i.e. for the same price I obtained them, meaning I'm not making any money from them)?

No, see above.

If the answer is "yes" to any of the above, can the copyright holder explicitly prohibit me from doing so, or would such a prohibition be unenforceable (e.g. if this would be fair use)?

It isn't allowed. Yes they can stop you. No, it isn't fair use; there is no "fair use" defence for trade mark infringement here - you are depriving them of income because you are not buying their T-shirt!

Any other factors that are relevant but which I'm forgetting?

Will they sue you for doing these things? Probably not.

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  • This seems to be the opposite of the top answer here... would you have any sources to back up your answer? Also see this, which says that the problem is marketing the t-shirts, not merely wearing them. – user541686 Oct 7 '15 at 1:09
  • Those are about copyright - your question is about "brands" where trade mark applies – Dale M Oct 7 '15 at 1:14
  • Did you actually read them? They're not just talking about copyright, they're talking about trademarks too -- one of them specifically says, "Obviously, if you do not plan to market the t-shirts and just plan to wear the one you printed to the beach then you need not worry about allegations of trademark dilution or copyright infringement." – user541686 Oct 7 '15 at 2:14
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    @nomenagentis My intent was to say there was no fair use defence in this case; I have edited to make this clearer. – Dale M Oct 7 '15 at 3:36
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    @DaleM: I think the point of the comment is to question the correctness of your answer, rather than to actually ask a new question on the site. – user541686 Oct 7 '15 at 5:23
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My off-the-cuff solution to this legal issue is/was to allow brand re-usage if they've displayed it in the public view (on a billboard), where you did not have a choice to NOT view it. In such a case, THEY'VE exposed their trademark to YOU by their own motives and take the risk of putting it the public domain, as it were.

They still own the brand, but now their motivations of maximum exposure have been realized -- you now have a copy from their acts.

To expect the Law to provide total control to a corporation is to move the balance of a Law for the People to one for Profit. You should treat this exactly the same way as the otherwise-protected image of the President is treated -- in a satirical way or for political commentary, not for profit.

There is a case that could be made if the brand you wish to use is a T-shirt manufacturer (Haynes), since it could be construed as misrepresentation in a way that the viewer cannot differentiate. Otherwise, nearly every case of brand use outside the company is differentiable.

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    This is not a site for "off-the-cuff" answers that not only fail to cite any law, but even evince an ignorance of it. E.g., in this answer you appear oblivious to even the principles of copyright and trademark, much less intellectual property law. This style of answer might be more suitable to Politics, English Language & Usage, or other such sites. – feetwet Oct 7 '15 at 12:47
  • Then you're suggesting authoritative answers as if this is legal advice. – Mark Rosenblitt-Janssen Oct 7 '15 at 14:28
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    The questions of what constitutes legal advice vs. legal information, and what constitutes a good answer vs. a bad answer, are addressed in the Help and on Meta. Meta would be the appropriate forum to raise that argument if you feel the existing Q&A there doesn't address it. – feetwet Oct 7 '15 at 15:47

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