Intellectual Property for a Clothing Line: Everything You Need to Know

Is it your dream to print My little Pony T-shirts? They’re cute and you know they’re going to sell well. Why not just take one or a couple of images of the internet? After all, they’re so many and in high resolution too!

‘What about copyright?’ someone asked. You shrugged it off. Yours is a small brand that sells apparel online. It’s not like you’re going to sell it on Bond Street. Nobody will notice.


I will stop you right there. Smaller businesses than yours have gotten into lots of trouble for using images that don’t belong to them. Think Hasbro is going to stop itself because you can’t pay the best lawyer in town? Think again! Taking an image from the internet is very tentative. They’re there for anyone to grab. It’s so easy! But is it worth losing your company? Intellectual property is one of those internet murky waters not many people enjoy dipping their toes into. While it is true that we have gotten better at it since the days of Napster, it is still a sticky subject we haven’t quite figured out.

In this post I intend to illustrate the basics of IP (Intellectual Property) to help you make better decisions when using someone else’s design and to protect your brand. Because copyright goes both ways!

But first…

What is a Intellectual Property?

It is the name given to tangible and original creations of someone’s mind. Arts, literature and even inventions fall within intellectual property. Intellectual property is a universal concept and in order for a creation of yours to be considered as such, you only have to create it. Copyrights, patents and trademarks are all a legal representation of IP, designed to protect it.  

What is copyright?

It is the name given to the rights you have over a particular piece you’ve created. In order to acquire the copyrights of something, all you need to do is create it and declare it your own. In order to qualify, it needs to be tangible and original. Ideas or a tune you may have in your head are not protected by copyright, for example. If you have a really good idea for a design and don’t want anyone else to copy it, don’t share it until you’ve put it down on paper.

You don’t have to apply for a copyright to protect your intellectual property, but doing so will make taking legal action against anyone who misuses it much easier. If you want to use another person’s IP you’ll need permission to do it. This one usually takes the form of an agreement or a licence (more on that later). Copyrights can be sold and transferred. Such is the case with Peter Pan. The late author of the boy who didn’t want to grow old transferred the rights to the Great Ormond Street Hospital back in 1929 and thanks to a special legislation, to this dat it still gains revenues from the character.

Copyright doesn’t last forever, though. It varies from country to country, but in most cases they last through the entire life of the creator and fifty years after their death. In the UK it is actually 70 years after the creator’s death. But it sounds little compared to Mexico where the copyright lasts 100 years! And then? What happens? What happens after the copyright expires?

It becomes public domain.

What is Public Domain?

Have you ever wondered why so many publishers sell Jane Austen’s works while only one sells J.K. Rowling’s novels? That’s because the copyrights of the first have expired (or didn’t even exist to begin with. Being public domain means that it’s up for grabs for anyone to use and be creative with.

Nasa recently made their entire library of images and audiovisuals public domain. Although the guidelines states they’re completely free to use for educational purposes, it is not clear wether it is also free for commercial ones.

nasa step

If would like to take a look at Nasa’s impressive gallery and other resources, take a moment to check out the following list:

Public Domain image resources

Check out this Wikipedia page for many more.

What is a trademark?

It works the same way as a copyright, but it protects a brand instead of a creation. Trademarks are legally registered elements that include names, slogans, images, colours and even sounds. They can be individual or a combination of several.

Should I trademark my brand?

If you’re serious about your t-shirt printing business then the answer is YES. Applying for a trademark is not that expensive, the costs start at £170 and go up depending of how many elements you want to protect (slogan, logo, etc…). The trademark should be included in your business plan from the very beginning. It is important to get it early because once you get popular, anyone could rip you off. If you still don’t think it’s worth it, do it because once it’s all done you’ll get to add the little ® next to your brand name — and that’s cool.

What is a patent?

Patents are to inventions and medicine what copyright is to arts and design. They are the most complicated and expensive way to protect your work since they can take up to five years to concede and around £4000 to apply. One of the main reasons it takes so long is because you need to prove that nobody else has already done what you’re presenting.  

Now you understand what intellectual property is and the different ways people and brands can explore to protect them. But you still would like to create merchandise using someone else’s intellectual property. How do you go about it, then?

This is when licenses come in.

What is a license?

It is a contract between the trademark owner (licensor) and the purchaser (licensee). When it comes to intellectual property laws, a license it’s a special kind of permission given to a third party to use someone else’s intellectual property. If you want to print a famous character onto a t-shirt (Fluttershy!) and sell it, you’ll have to purchase a licence from whoever holds the copyright of said character. How licenses work sometimes change depending on the country, but they tend to function the same way throughout most of the Western world.

Pros and Cons


  • The licensee saves time and money on developing their own designs and marketing them
  • The licensee benefits on the fame of an already popular brand or character
  • The licensor gets to tap on a new market otherwise it may not have access to
  • The licensor earns royalties for every product sold


  • The licensee needs to prove they can produce and market up to the standards of the IP which is often bad news for small businesses
  • Generally, the licensee needs to pay a fee upfront which can be a risk if the goods don’t sell as expected
  • While the licensor may have a saying in production, it does not have full control
  • Revenues are split in two

Types of licenses

Character and entertainment

mickey teeSource

Characters are very valuable because they tend to surpass the medium that originated them. For example, everyone knows Mickey Mouse, but most people have never heard of of Steamboat Willie — the animated short film where Disney’s mascot first appeared in. This type of licensing regards characters that come out of films, video games and TV shows, among others.

Corporate trademark and brand

cocacola t-shirtSource

There are different reasons as to why brands may want to sell licenses. Some may want more exposure, others may need to diversify. An example would be hotel chains that sell their name usually to enter a new territory.


CK jeansSource

When clothing brands get popular enough, they’ll sell their license to a different company so they can produce other types of products with the same name like perfumes, sunglasses and porn — nope. That was still perfume, my bad. Calvin Klein’s most famous products, jeans, perfumes and underwear are licenses. The only line that’s produced inside the company is the woman’s apparel.


Rio2016 t-shirtSource

More and more each year, sports teams have started to act like brands. The players are the characters and the team is the company. Sports licensing deals with teams and organisations like the Olympics.


This type of licensing deals with artists and their works. An example would be a stationary company approaching an artist to use her or his pieces on notebooks’ covers.

How to purchase a license:

Keep in mind that licensing agreements change depending on company and licensing agency. I’ve listed below the steps that are regularly taken to purchase a license, but again they will probably change from case to case.

  1. In order to acquire a license you’ll have to find out who owns the copyright of that property. If it is a character from a movie or a comic book you may want to start with the author and/or the production company. You can also visit’s directory to browse their database.
  2. Once you’ve found out who owns the copyrights, you will have to negotiate. Companies usually hire licensing agencies to handle their intellectual property. This is the people you’ll be talking to.
  3. You’ll have to make a proposal. The more famous the property, then the more valuable it will be and the more difficult and expensive it will be to acquire the rights. In this proposal you’re expected to explain how you’re intending to use their IP. This includes marketing and production. Most importantly, how much money you’re expecting to make out of this endeavour. Chances are that if you’re a small brand, Marvel won’t sell the rights of Spiderman to you. A company such a this will want to guarantee proper earnings from such a popular character.
  4. Once you’ve acquired the license, you’ll need to pay some of the money you’re expecting to make upfront.   
  5. Having a license does not mean complete freedom. Each escenario is different, but you will probably have to ask for the licensor’s input in every step of the production process.

I hope this information was useful. It doesn’t explain everything (we only have so much time), but at least it should give you a general idea of how the world of IP and licensing works. For more information, you can always visit the UK’s intellectual property website. Also if you’re seriously interested in trademarking your brand or purchasing a license from another company, you should consider booking a meeting with an IP lawyer.

Got any more tips on this subject? Please let us know in the comments below! Or by contacting us through any of our social media outlets. In the meantime, keep reading the Printsome Blog for more awesome content.

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From the moment you get in touch, one of our ‘printing experts’ will answer all of your questions and find efficient solutions to your needs. It is our mission to help your career flourish. Thanks to high-quality garments and cutting-edge printing techniques, we can produce almost any design. Printing T-shirts has never been this easy.

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