Ever wondered why everyone seems to own a Nirvana T-shirt, and why you don’t hear the Ramones talking about suing H&M for making millions selling T-shirts with their logo? It’s all down to the wonderful, yet somewhat complex developments in the world of copyright law, that can be a bit of a head-spinner if you’re not up-to-date on all the facts. Now, let’s find out exactly why you can bulk print your own T-shirt range from NASA designs, make a small fortune and why no-one will come knocking on your door with a court order.

Firstly, I want to clear up some of the jargon, namely the terms open source, creative commons and public domain.

Open Source

The open source movement originates back to the early 1980s then computer programmer Richard Stallman had difficulty fixing his printer. He advocated for all software to be ‘open’ in such a way that it may be collectively shared and modified, with the idea being that this way, technological advances could be made much more easily – two heads are better than one. As a result, in 1983 he wrote The GNU General Public License (GNU GPL or GPL).

Whilst Stallman referred primarily to computer software, open source can refer to lots of different formats, such as scripts and images, even blueprints for machinery and housing nowadays, under the same basic concept that sharing is caring. Want to start a small scale farming business? Marcin Jakubowski has open-sourced a set of blueprints for 50 farming tools that can be built cheaply from scratch. Call it a “civilization starter kit.” So what on earth does all of this have to do with t-shirts? If you’re still left feeling a little miffed or want to know more about the movement, check out this easy to digest video, which explains the entire concept through lego.

richard-stallmanPhoto: Richard Stallman source

It turns out that the more we share, the more we are able to help and build communities as well as solve serious problems, such as the housing crisis in London – by creating tools such as WikiHouse, an open source house designing system. What does this have to do with t-shirts?

Creative Commons

If it wasn’t for the developments made in copyright law made by Stallman, the idea of Creative Commons may never have been born. Inspired by The GNU General Public License (GNU GPL or GPL), the Creative Commons licenses were released in 2001, responding to a growing need in more varied copyright legislation due to explosive use of digital media. This is where t-shirts suddenly become incredibly relevant.

As a T-shirt designer, or someone wanting to launch an online clothing brand, the Creative Commons licenses are of immense interest (as they are to me as a graphic designer and copywriter for the Printsome blog). Why? Because here, my friends, lies the difference between making or not making your first fortune. Consider the Creative Commons to be official types of permission for the use of others’ work, whereby you may or not be able to make money from someone else’s design, have to credit someone or not. Firstly, here are the current different licenses, with their varying levels of ‘freedom’ of use. It is always recommended that you consult the official website for the conditions of each license.

By Creative Commons – Source

Public Domain

To be as clear as possible regarding terminology, describing something as ‘public domain’ is essentially equivalent to saying that it is licensed under CC0 in terms of Creative Commons, although equally, a public domain mark exists – you can read more about it here.

“CC0 gives creators a way to waive all their copyright and related rights in their works to the fullest extent allowed by law.”

In a nutshell, if I were to decide to print t-shirts or other apparel using someone else’s designs, this would be the license I would look for, as it enables you to copy, modify and redistribute, EVEN for commercial purposes.

Now, for some interesting examples of designs and case studies in light of what you now know about how copyrighting legislation is evolving.

The Nirvana ‘logo’

I always wondered to myself how it was possible that huge commercial clothing lines, such as H&M, New Look and Primark are able to ‘get away’ with making a profit on the sale of band t-shirts. It baffled me that any group (particularly ones that have dwindled and probably not making so much money these days) would allow for the commercialisation of their merchandising without consent. Naturally, I came to the conclusion that perhaps designers at H&M had had a little chat with Kurt Cobain when he was alive and that he had signed something to say it was all dandy by him (Ok, go ahead and laugh at my innocent mind).

It turns out that even before Creative Commons existed, some work just slipped through the net in the world of copyright law. In the case of the infamous illustration by Cobain, that eventually became recognised internationally as the band’s logo [it] does not meet the threshold of originality needed for copyright protection, and is therefore in the public domain.’ You can read more about precisely what this means here.

1024px-Nirvana_logo_yellow.svgNirvana logo: source

The Superman logo

There are also many famous logos and designs that you would imagine are already in the public domain and actually aren’t. This would mean that `rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable’. In layman’s terms, this generally means that the work is so old, it has already been shared so frequently that it is considered to be public property – such as the work of Shakespeare and famous composers, for example. Some cases, however, are a little more borderline. The Superman logo is a good example of such debates– it is actually owned by DC Comics, Inc. A subsidiary of Time Warner (c)2015.

Though there has been much debate about whether it should already be considered public domain or not. With particularly famous logos, you can use Wikipedia as a relatively reliable reference with regards to copyrighted material. Click on whichever image is of interest to you and just below it will state details about its copyright license, and sometimes, where no license is applicable, you will be able to download the original.

superman-26Superman logo: source

The NASA logo

“NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted”

There you go, it’s written in black and white on the official website. So, I wasn’t joking, if you want to create an entire NASA themed clothing brand you absolutely can, particularly as they also waiver copyright on a great deal of other material including video footage and photography.


Going bananas: The Velvet Underground vs. Andy Warhol.

Here’s a great example of an iconic image appearing to be in public domain until…The Warhol foundation started to use the image for iPod covers, iPhone cases and other products (nearly 50 years after the original release of the album). So, to be clear, The Velvet Underground used an image legally for the cover of their album ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico,’ as Warhol managed the band and designed it for them. Later, the band decided that the image was now their trademark and attempted to license the image. Who do you think has the right to license the image?

Well, the original artwork was of course created by Warhol, however, neither had actually copyrighted the piece, both claiming it as an intrinsic part of their identities. The image seems to remain unlicensed, though personally, I wouldn’t want to take my chances. After all, the whole world knows that this image has had copyright issues. So, do you think it should be considered as already in the public domain? Let us know what you think.


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Don’t fancy designs that are so well-known?

Now for the fun part. It’s a little hard to believe at times that there are people so passionate about their designs, that they are willing to give their hard work away for free. Whilst researching to bring you the most up-to-date information on copyright developments, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon one of Ryan McGuire’s websites, Gratisography.com.

If you take a look at the website, you’ll find a very varied and unique set of high-resolution professional photos, free of copyright restrictions. So free in fact, that just one click on an image and it’s downloading to your hard drive. Nothing in life is this free, I thought. I would always recommend that should you have any doubts regarding whether or not you can use someone’s work or whether or not the idea you have in mind would breach copyright, you should get in touch with the artist. Which is exactly what I did.

“I don’t really mind if my images are printed on shirts and sold. It’s nice that people are able to build a business and make a living off the images I share with the world for free. Although I don’t require it, as a professional courtesy it is recommended list the photographer in the description of the shirt being sold.”

So there you have it, I strongly urge you to check out Ryan’s website, as well as his new project, Colorlisa a collection of colour palettes inspired by the world’s most famous artists.




Where can I get free stock images for commercial use?

I have compiled a complete, curated list of various locations and methods of finding images to use for your t-shirt printing desires. Don’t expect to just find a list of any old free stock photo bank. I’m sharing my design secrets with you here, to help you find quality images in a legal fashion. Thank you to the writers at Wearegrow and Globaldigitalcitizen for their excellent articles.

Please be aware that since copyright is a very sensitive issue, please take into consideration that at all information is correct at the time of writing. Make sure you check for individual designs and if in doubt, ask, ask, ask!

1# Finding copyright free images via Google.

Just because Google vomits out hundreds of thousands of photos when you perform a search and you can right click and download them, it doesn’t mean that you have the right to do what you will with these files. UNLESS…

  1. You perform an advanced search
  2. Scroll down to the drop-down menu that says ‘Usage rights.’
  3. Select ‘free to use, share or modify, even commercially.’

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.11.16 PM

2# Looking for vectors and clipart.

Remember clipart back in the day? Well forget your dodgy characters with question marks over their heads, the world of clipart has been advancing in the background whilst you were bust playing on giphy. Seriously though, check out websites like Publicdomainvectors (the clue is in the name) and Vectoropenstock. These are just a couple of examples, but you’ll see that a Google search will bring up loads of articles with lists of royalty-free vectors, some free, some not. The important thing is the check the individual licensing for the image you’re interested in.

3# Random offers

Keep your eyes peeled for random offers circulating the internet. I often receive bits and pieces through newsletters I’m signed up to, though occasionally I’m surprised by an online gem like this one. Getty Images (a paid royalty free image service) set free 4600 images to the public domain. Here’s what they have to say about the decision:

“This move is also an educational imperative. Artists, students, teachers, writers, and countless others rely on artwork images to learn, tell stories, exchange ideas, and feed their own creativity.”

Here are a couple of my favourites from the collection.

getty images2

getty images

4# Totally Free Images

A crazy, eclectic bundle of all sorts of images, from everyday situations to random famous people you’re not sure you’ve heard of to nuclear disasters. Well, you never know what the theme of your clothing brand might be…

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 4.19.07 PM

5# Flickr

I know, Flickr seems to be dying. I’m actually quite sad about this and it’s a bit of a sore issue since they seem to have blocked access to my account. However, to look on the bright side, with the help the Creative Commons licensing system, you can access some top quality photography for your apparel projects.

  1.  Click on the individual photo you’re interested in.
  2. Read the Creative Commons license information on the bottom right.
  3. Download the size you require directly from Flickr, using the button on the bottom right-hand side.

Here’s one of mine, I have applied CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. This means that you can share the image if you credit me, and you can modify or build on it, providing you state that you have done so.


6# The Morgue File

This one was actually new to me and was a great find since it’s an excellent resource if you’re trying to get away from that horrible traditional stock photo look. Founded in 1996, the Morgue File was designed ‘by creatives, for creatives’ and ALL of the photos are free to download for personal and commercial use.



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7# Gratisography

As I mentioned before, this is a pretty unique resource for more quirky, comical and bizarre photography – perhaps well-suited to a t-shirt brand.

8# Pixabay

There’s no getting away from the more stock photo look of images you can get from Pixabay, but hey-ho, they have a wide range of images from dogs in party hats to avocados. Now if that isn’t a challenge to use your imagination for a new clothing brand concept, I don’t know what is.




Don’t just think of your typical space imagery, there’s a lot of other cool retro things and design at NASA if you’re into that kind of thing. Here are some I thought were pretty cool for t-shirt printing.



10# Unsplash

Last but not least, check out Unsplash for Instagram come National Geographic style photos that are nothing short of downright sexy, high resolution, exquisite colours and ‘do whatever you want’ policy on their copyright license. Save the best for last!



Print on Demand

Here at Printsome, we’ve always supported creative endeavours. Through our print on demand services, we are helping agents, artists, entrepreneurs, designers and content creators who have their own T-shirt line.

With dropshipping we deal with all the inventory and logistics headaches so you have more time to do what you love. We offer very fast dropshipping services in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.

No matter where you want to sell merchandise on demand. We deliver anywhere.

If you want to sell quality garments, Printsome’s Print on demand service is exactly what you are looking for. Our garments are handpicked and thanks to our +6 years of experience in the T-shirt printing industry we ensure the highest print quality. You can take a look at our items here in our catalogue.

We don’t have minimum orders and we can print any design with no colour limitations. From the moment you connect your online shop with our Shopify T-shirt fulfillment platform, anyone can buy one of your designs.

If you have any doubt, you can contact us here. Our friendly team of printing advisors will help you. Print on demand worldwide has never been easier!


Hayley's journey began in the Design Department, where she left her stamp all over the Printsome blog -- an absolute wizard with formats, infographics, and illustrations! From there she branched out into proving her writing skills were also top-notch. She writes freelance about printing for the blog. Her creativity is versatile, her drive, insatiable. She is also Communication Coordinator at MOB (Makers of BCN), whilst co-writing Audiovisual City Magazine.

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