Finding trends to make designs for can be a difficult endeavor. Where do you go to find the latest trends? And once you find a good source for trends, how do you evaluate the suggested trends so that you are not wasting your time on designs that are not going to sell?  Let’s talk about it…

Considerations

Before we talk about where to find trends for your print on demand designs, lets take a moment to put a couple warnings out there. First, remember that everyone who does print on demand is also looking for good sources for design trends, we all want to get in on the ground floor for that next viral design. Second, if you rely on YouTube or blog articles for your weekly source of trending designs, realize that your sales for that design will often depend on when you get your design completed and uploaded for sale. If your source uploads a video or article on Sunday and you wait until Tuesday to start working on your designs, many other designers will be in the market with that design before you, and the market for that design will be saturated.

A trending story

The freshest and least competition source for trends will always be the news. This can be from twitter, a local or national news station or even Facebook. Who has time to watch the news all day? Nobody, but it is a good source. As an example, one of the designers I have been mentoring for a long time made a design last year using the phrase “it is what it is”. The designer happened to be watching the news the night that the story broke and within a couple hours he had a design created, tuned, and uploaded. The phrase went viral in the Print on Demand world and the designer did very well for the short time the phrase was a thing. This is a good example of noticing a trend, creating a design, and uploading while customers were actively looking or shirts with the phrase. The shirts sold great for the first few days and then sales held steady for three weeks. This is the lifetime for many trends, the first few days will do great then as the trend is fading you will see steadily declining sales as more designers get into the market for that trend. This is the problem many PoD designers see; they find the trend too late and unless their designs are above average (not using Canva or other template sites) they generally hit the market for that trend after the initial sales rush is over. The late to the party designer will see a few sales (or likely none) and get frustrated.

Competition

This can be difficult to hear, but designers who chase the latest trends but lack graphic design skills are the most likely to fail at print on demand, or struggle with sales. If you take one thing away from this article, know that the best way to make a decent number of sales on Redbubble, Teespring or other PoD services is to offer good quality designs that stand out from the crowd in a low competition niche. The number one thing you will hear from anyone offering advice on Redbubble or PoD will tell you that you need to find a niche that you are passionate about and is low competition. If you start out your PoD journey by jumping into the Pets or alcohol general niche, you are jockeying for a place at the table with well established designers. Unless your cat design is amazing, don’t expect to do well in an oversaturated niche until you get established in the market. Now, if you drill down into a niche to a smaller portion of it, like cats and coffee or cats and marathon runners (as an example, but these are also pretty saturated) you can expect to sell significantly more units that if you stayed in the general cats niche.

Do you suggest paid options?

My answer to this is meh.  I have been mentoring designers for a long time, and I have seen some do well with the paid services, but generally designers who find their own sources for trends make more sales than having a service spoon feed you the trends to work on. Much of this depends on how much time you must devote to your print on demand business. If you have time to watch the news and can move quickly to get a high quality design out to market, you can do well. As before, realize that there are a lot of other designers who are frustrated and struggling like you are and looking for that easy source of trends. The way to succeed in business is to find a way to differentiate yourself from the crowd. If everyone is using the paid services and making the same shirts, how many do you really think are succeeding?

Evaluating trends

Many designers use bubble trends as their primary source for designs. You can find them here. (https://bubbletrends.herokuapp.com/trends) The site lists the trending searches on Redbubble, and a lot of designers hawk this site daily and make designs based on the daily results. Let’s take a look at the top 20 results for today, but first something to think about: The results on these sites can be skewed. The number one search is abs in progress, when a designer sees this, he or she will often go to Redbubble and search for the term and look at the resulting designs. This artificially increases the validity of the term and raises it higher or keeps it on top. The thing you don’t know is how many non-designers searched for this term.

The first thing you should notice about this weeks top twenty is the copyrighted material like Baron Zemo (from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) or celebrity names like DMX or Angela Dean. Copyrighted material cannot be used to make print on demand designs unless you are working with a partner program through Redbubble or other service, and celebrities are protected just like copyrighted material. You cannot use likenesses of celebrities in your designs without permission. The rest of the searches are reasonable sources for designs depending on hos many results there are. The only other point I would make about this week’s list would be the fully vaccinated still antisocial term. Some print on demand services are still purposely pushing results for Coronavirus and Covid-19 searches down into the lower rankings. They do not want to be responsible for people profiting off of the pandemic. I would use this one at your own risk. As of this writing, many services consider it a grey area but I personally don’t use it in my designs.

So is Bubbletrends a good site? Is the information valuable? It depends. I am telling you about it and you are checking it out today. How many other designers have read this article and are using the site on a daily basis now? The viability of a trend is determined by your ability to get a quality design out to market.

Conclusion

What sources do you use for finding trends? Are you struggling with low or slow sales on Redbubble Teespring, Merch by Amazon or other PoD service? Drop me a message and let’s talk. Please share this article with your print on demand communities and get out there and get designing!

The most common reason a design is taken down is for violating copyright or community standards. The second most common (an often overlooked) reason a design can be taken down is for using font which are not commercially licensed. There are a ton of sites that offer free fonts, so why would a design be taken down for using one of these free fonts? Let’s talk about it.. 

Fonts and how they can get your design removed

People create fonts, and just like a photograph, the work the creator does is covered under copyright. If you use sits like dafont not all of the fonts they offer are commercially useable. When you download a font from this type of site, you have to read the end user license agreement. You will find that many of the cooler fonts are not freely useable for commercial purposes. Just like stock photo sites, font sites scour the internet constantly  looking for improper uses of their client’s fonts. They will send a takedown notice to sites like Redbubble and quickly get your design removed, then it is up to you to prive that you purchased or properly licensed the offending font. 

The larger concern for print on demand designers is that the status of the fonts can change at any time. Often the author of the font will decide that they do not want the font to be used commercially anymore and the status will change to private use only. When this happens you will not receive notification, it is up to you as a designer to keep track of the fonts you have used in your designs and constantly review the status. This can add a lot of time to an already time-consuming design process. So, how do you avoid tis? How can you be sure that you are using fonts that are safe and won’t change status?

The argument for Adobe

When you subscribe to Creative Cloud or even the photoshop bundle, you get use of Adobe’s font library which is commercially useable. Since I have been using Adobe, none of their font have changed status from commercial to private and I started using photoshop at version two about a million years ago. That doesn’t mean it won’t even happen I just feel safe in knowing that if the status of a font changed, they would let their community know because they are the industry leader in design software. 

If you use affinity designer or Canva, the fonts in those packages are also (as of this writing please do your own research for confirmation) commercially useable. I would imagine if the status changed with one of their fonts, they too would notify their user base.

Conclusion

What is your source of fonts for print on demand designs? How confident are you in the likelihood of them not changing status? I love to hear from my readers, feel free to drop me a message with questions about this article or anything in print on demand. Remember I use name brands in my blogs so I can’t monetize it please pass this article along to your print on demand communities it helps me and keeps articles like this coming.

Now get out there and get designing!

Over the last few hours, thousands of users’ Redbubble accounts have been suspended. What is going on? While this is still a developing story here is what I have been able to find out so far: (This page will be updated as we find out more) 

Two theories

The first working theory at this point is that Redbubble has finally decided to crack down on accounts with copyright violations or tag spamming. Cries from the Facebook and Twitter haunts for Redbubble seem to be mostly from users who “only upload their own work and never tag spam” .Amazon recently posted that they will be cracking down on designs that promote violence, infringe on copyright, and many other no-nos. Users must have their designs culled and anything that might be deemed in violation of the new rules needs to be removed by February 2nd. This information is probably the biggest reason people are thinking that Redbubble has finally decided to crack down on users who are uploading copyrighted material, stock photography, and use tag spamming to get to the front pages.  The second theory is a lot less conspiracy theory-oriented – there is a bug in their review algorithm that auto bans users’ accounts when certain tags are used. No hard evidence of this has been verified at this time. 

What is tag spamming?

If you post a design featuring a dog, you could use tags like dog, dogs, beagle, cute, running,  etc. depending on the type of dog in your design. Users have found that if they use tags that for example have the word dog 25 times without a comma separating, they will tend to rank higher in the Redbubble pages for dog. This is cheating the system and most users knew that Redbubble would eventually catch on and the users who used this spam trick would be punished. 

Where we are now

I have logged into my account successfully this morning, and I have uploaded a few designs to test the system. I don’t use or condone tag spamming so the tags I used were all relevant to the design and there were 15 of them. As of this writing, I have not received an email saying that my account was banned and I was not asked to log in again like so many have today. None of the users that I saw reporting their account being suspended said they got an email explaining why their account was banned, which seems to be common practice from Redbubble. This is the major reason I am thinking that this isn’t a clearing house or mass suspension for violates, rather just a bug in their system,. The biggest concern is that designers need to ensure that they have all their designs backed up and ready to upload and post again if the accounts can’t be recovered. You do have a good system for designs that have been posted to each PoD service right?

My recommendation is that if you don’t have to upload a design or log into your account today don’t. I would wait until tomorrow at least to ensure that the issue has been i=dentified and or resolved. I logged into mine so I could report for you guys. I’m planning to wait until Monday to get back to uploading. Take the weekend and do some good research for new designs!

We will report more on this developing story as more information becomes available.  

Update 1/21/2021 @ 4:30pm MST:

Emails from Redbubble are starting to go out to those who were suspended saying accounts have been closed for violating the Redbubble user agreement. This could be tag spamming, copyright material in designs, or even the subject matter of some designs. If you are confident that your designs don’t have copyright material and you don’t tag spam, then I would review your designs to ensure that the content complies with the letter of the Redbubble user agreement that you agreed to when you signed up for your account. This is starting to look more like a cleaning of the accounts than just a glitch, but who knows. The source of the issue is anyone’s guess. Redbubble still have not posted any official comment on Twitter. 

More updates on this story as they come, remember this could all just be a bug in the Redbubble servers, but the logical argument against that theory is that emails are going out about suspended accounts and if it were a catastrophic bug I would think that Redbubble would have posted by now. 

At this point, your best bet if you got suspended today is to send Redbubble a nice email and ask about having your account reviewed.Good luck!

Update 01292021 @ 10:30pm:

There is still a ton of speculation from all of the internet sources but at this point, only Redbubble knows what is going on and they are remaining silent.  The latest speculation is surrounding automated uploading systems. Were you banned while you were uploading using an automated system like Merch Titans? I am currently not using an automated uploader for my daily workflow, so I am interested to hear from you all about this. 

As I said earlier in the day I did upload a few designs with no issues. I did them all manually so the auto uploader theory is as good as any at this point.  I think I will hold off uploading until Redbubble give us an official lowdown on the situation. In the meantime, I have scrounged up some links for your information during this time. 

Redbubble Account Recovery:

https://www.redbubble.com/account_recovery

 

Redbubble Account support,:

https://help.redbubble.com/hc/en-us/requests/new

I have had good luck emailing directly as well.:

support@redbubble.com

 

Content & Suspension:

https://help.redbubble.com/hc/en-us/articles/201350809

 

Intellectual Property Rules & Guidelines:

https://help.redbubble.com/hc/en-us/articles/211727063

 

User Policies:

https://help.redbubble.com/hc/en-us/articles/201761545

 

Hopefully, you find this information useful. Good luck out there. 

Update 01/30/2021 @  10:00 am MST

There is good news and bad news on this morning’s update of the current Redbubble account suspension avalanche. The good news is that I have received a number of transcripts from conversations between concerned artists and Redbubble customer support via chat. The situation appears to not be caused by a glitch or bug in the Redbubble system. The bad news is that Redbubble appears to be suspending accounts that violate their terms and conditions (which I have provided a link to above.). This means that if you are uploading designs that contain copyrighted material you do not have the license to use (I’m looking at you designers using Among Us and Baby Yoda), or you are a tag spammer or you are using an automated uploader system they are going to get you. If you have already violated these terms (or others) then it doesn’t matter when you log in, your account is very likely still going to get suspended. 

If this all comes down to be the automated uploader system, this is going to be an interesting hit in subscribers for companies like Merch Titans. I find it interesting that many of the youtube channels that create content around and have affiliate partnerships with these automated uploaders have been surprisingly quiet for the last couple of days. Not a conspiracy theory, just an observation. 

All of the transcripts I have been forwarded indicate that it is fine for artists to be submitting work as long as the designs are not violating any of the Redbubble terms and conditions. I uploaded five designs yesterday and five more today with no issue. I’m not saying that you should jump right in and start uploading because I don’t want to be responsible for your account being suspended. My advice is to evaluate your situation carefully and decide if you have used tag spamming, uploaded copyrighted designs, or used automated uploader systems before you try and continue work. I would also recommend reevaluating your workflow if you are one of the many designers who make 20 derivative versions of one design. This type of flooding does nothing for the market other than giving customers view fatigue and make them less likely to buy anything.

I will reiterate that for those of us who are not tag spammers and do not try to game the system or use copyrighted material in their designs, this mass account suspension is a good thing. There does not appear to be a glitch or bug causing accounts to be suspended randomly, this appears to be a clear effort on the part of Redbubble to suspend the accounts of those who are not working within the terms and conditions they agreed to. At the end of the day, those who worked outside of the terms, I’m sorry for your loss of time, but you knew this was coming eventually. For those who are working legitimately and not trying to game the system enjoy your increased sales.

I’ll continue to update this as more solid information comes to light. 

Update February 3, 2021

First,  my apologies to those who have been turning to this site for updates on the Redbubble account purges for posting this so late, My computer decided it was going to have a drive failure and have been out of commission for a few days during the rebuild process. Enough about my problems, what is going on with the Redbubble account bans and suspensions?

Finally!

We finally got official word from Redbubble on the suspensions. Was this a coverup for a larger purge of users? who knows but it is sure nice to see an official statement being released recognizing the problem. As of this writing, we don’t know more than Redbubble is saying it IS a server issue. So is it safe to start uploading now? I don’t know. I have been uploading through the whole time (when my computer wasn’t broken anyway) and I uploaded five designs this morning with no issues. Reading a little into the statement, it seems like everyone who has continued to upload during this time has been pressing their luck. I believe I will hold off on uploading more until I am sure that the problem has been resolved. 

Good luck out there! and keep the news coming!

Update 02/05/2021 @ 8:00am MST

I have had many reports of Redbubble banning accounts again this morning. I honestly thought we were getting past this situation. Over the last couple of days, many users that had their accounts suspended have had their accounts reinstated. Unfortunately, the bulk of these users were banned again once they were brave enough to upload a new design. At this point, things are honestly getting frustrating. I’m happy that we finally got some official word from Redbubble on the situation but it is difficult not to read a bit of nefarious intent from Redbubble into the situation. Don’t get me wrong, those who illegally use copyrighted material in their designs should be held accountable and their accounts should be suspended. The way Redbubble seems to be going about this could be better. At this point, I am recommending that users wait to upload new designs until Monday to see if we get another official statement. I have been (and continue to) upload new designs throughout this whole situation. I feel it is important for me to have first0hand knowledge if I am going to be reporting this situation to you, my readers. 

If anything of note happens this weekend I will update otherwise expect a new update on the evolving situation Monday morning MST.

In the meantime, work on some new designs and good luck out there!

Among us is a multiplayer game that became popular during the early days of the COVID quarantine. The game was released by a small company called Innersloth. The viral popularity of the game and simple graphics inspired many designers to create designs for their Redbubble and other print on demand shops. The designs sold very well riding the popularity of the game, the only problem was that the artists that were selling the designs were doing so illegally.

Copyright

When the game’s popularity grew exponentially, demand for shirts and other gear went through the roof. Since the company that released the game was relatively small (three people) they quickly realized people were profiting off their work and publicly pleaded for people to stop making designs featuring their game. Shortly, PoD services like Amazon, Teespring and Redbubble removed the designs from their services, though many designs even as of this writing are still available.

It doesn’t matter if the team who made the game was a small indie gamer or EA, the fact remains that they own the copyright and rights to create materials with the design not you. Many designs have the mentality that if it is available on the internet, it is free and that simply is not the case. You have to have permission (written) to use any content in your designs that you did not create. What this means is that if you drew the characters from Among US and then created a design with the drawing you still did not create the design, you only copied it, creating a derivative work. You can’t use that in your designs any more than you can use Baby Yoda in your designs.

Expressing yourself

If you are a fan of the game and would like to talk to them about submitting your fanart then by all means, contact them. The link to their website is below and from experience small teams are often very appreciative when they receive fanart submissions.

Conclusion

I hope this short article cleared things up for you. I get so many questions submitted via social media about using games like Among Us to make designs. Copyright can seem daunting and it can be tempting to try and subvert the system and use content you don’t own in your designs. At the end of the day however, the only people you are hurting are the content creators large and small when you use their work without permission.

If you have questions you would like me to answer, feel free to drop m a message here. Remember I can’t monetize this content because of all the copyrighted product names I use, so please do me a favor and support this blog by sharing these articles with your friends on social media.

Now, get out there and get designing!

 

Article Resources

Among Use team Innersloth

https://innersloth.com/index.php

Buy official Among Us merchandise!

https://store.innersloth.com/

Note: I do not own the copyright to Among Us, the phrase is used only for educational purposes. All rights and permissions are those of the copyright holder. 

If you create designs for Print on Demand, you know there is one email that will get your heart racing, that your artwork is under review for copyright or Intellectual Property violations on Redbubble or other Print on Demand service. Since November, Redbubble has been cracking down on accounts and seem to be more stringent with their review of products being uploaded to the store. I have had quite a few questions about this, so what causes Redbubble to put your artwork into the “under review” category, and should you panic about it? There are a few reasons this can happen, let’s talk about them…

Why is this happening?

When you get the dreaded “Your artwork is under review” email from Redbubble, it can be confusing and a bit frustrating because the email is vague and does not spell out what you might have done wrong – this is an auto-generated email and is intended to cover the lesser offenses as well as the big ones. When you upload a design to Redbubble, the server reviews the submission tags and details, searching for overt copyright infringement. A common example is this: you upload a design with a spaceship and tag it with Star Wars or use Star Wars in your description. Star Wars is a copyrighted phrase, and you are not allowed to use it to sell your spaceship designs, even if the design doesn’t contain the actual likenesses of a Star Wars spaceship. This is the same as uploading a sports design and tagging it with NFL, NBA, or other franchise.

If you are careful about checking the trademark and copyright status of your designs before you upload them, and don’t use obvious copyrighted words or phrases in your tags, then you will likely be just fine, and your designs will be reinstated to the store in a few days. Often the system kicks the design to a human to make sure that the content is not violating any intellectual property before can be sold. If this is where you are, then I would recommend that you wait a week and if they haven’t sent you a response, then contact Redbubble support at: Redbubble Marketplace Integrity Team dmca.support@redbubble.com and ask them nicely about the status of your design.

Target Tags change

Sometimes the review process is triggered by using tags that you would not think would cause an issue. I recently helped one of my readers through this process, and the first thing we did was start with the design and the tags he used. The design was generic enough and was something he drew in Adobe Illustrator; I did a search for trademarks on the topic of the design and all turned up fine. The problem came from the tags. When he uploaded the design, he used the word Redneck in his tags. This word triggered the process because of the NFL team Washington Redskins changing their name, and the media coverage surrounding it. Redneck seems to be the alternate name choice or suggestion from the public for the team. In the case of his design, the word redneck was appropriate, and he wasn’t even eluding to the controversy with the Washington Redskins in his design or description. He did as I suggested and waited a week then sent a genuinely nice email asking if Redbubble had any updates on the design review process. In this case, the design was reinstated, and no harm was done. Redbubble is very reasonable when it comes to reviewing copyright infringement. They see a lot of stolen work and a lot of people using copyrighted material in their designs so be nice to them and be patient because they are reviewing a lot of work daily.

Strike Three!

How many times can you get the “your work is under review” email from Redbubble before your account gets banned? First, I would say that if you are reading this and you are concerned about the prospect of your account being banned because you are using copyrighted material in your designs, then you have a larger problem. If you are using material you do not own in your designs, then you are stealing. Other artists and companies spend a lot of time and money to promote their brand and build their name and reputation, and it is not right for you to profit from that by using their content in your designs. I have heard between two and three strikes against your account before you are banned by Redbubble. I would imagine it depends on the kind of copyright infringement you are doing. If you are using a baby Yoda riding a Nike swoosh holding a Starbucks with a pot leaf behind him, then I would consider that a massive legel of infringement. If you accidentally add a copyrighted tag into your list, or accidentally put a copyrighted phrase in your description, I am betting Redbubble will be much more lenient in their ruling on your account.

Check your Copyrights

When researching content for new designs, you should always be taking the time to look up the trademarks and copyrights of your proposed design before you even start putting pen to paper. Even using material that some consider “grey area” like videogames in your designs is not allowed. There was a team that made the game, and an artist that created the characters, and programmers who made the code. You were not a part of the team and you do not have the right to make designs featuring their work for your profit. This applies to large and small companies and means you cannot use Mario from Nintendo and you cannot use the characters from the game Among Us in your designs.

Conclusion

So, if you can’t use any of these properties when making your design, what are you supposed to do? Create your own stuff. But what if your design isn’t as exciting or interesting without the words Just Do it? Create your own catchphrase, don’t expect Nike, who spent millions marketing Just Do It to let you use it for free. What if your design isn’t as cool without the Among Us characters? Create your own. It is all plain and simple. If you didn’t create the art/character/drink etc. DON’T USE IT!

Now get out there and get designing!

If you are new to Print on Demand, you might have shared some of your designs only to have people in the forums complain about copyright infringement, stealing, and all sorts of other things. How do you know when you are creating a design if the material you are using is copyrighted? Here is a quick list of topics that should not be used in your print on demand designs (unless you have permission from the owners of the property, or you are working with a partner program.)

I compiled this list after doing a very quick search on Redbubble, Teepublic, and Teespring. There are many more examples, this is not intended to be a complete list. I often see examples of designs using many of the properties on this list, and it seemed like a good idea to compile a list of areas that you should stay away from when making print on demand designs.   

Brands

  • Starbucks
  • Food – Pizza Hut, Chilis logo, etc.
  • Clothing Brands like Nike and Adidas
  • Soft Drinks like Coke, Mt. Dew, and Pepsi
  • Alcohol like Budweiser, Johnny Walker, Jack Daniels
  • Cars, not just the names but the shape of a car is also copyrighted and therefore should not be used without permission.
  • Toys, like LEGO – they are copyrighted.
  • Any logo for any brand or franchise. This includes Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, DC, and any other logo which is recognizable and represents a brand. This also extends to logos that might be more obscure like the logo for the Empire or Rebels from the Star Wars franchise, they are all copyrighted and may not be used in your designs.
  • Electronics – Dell computers, Cooler Master, Sony, Apple (iPhone iMac, etc.) Camera brands like Canon, Nikon, etc.
  • Catchphrases and marketing phrases – D’oh from The Simpsons, Just do it from Nike, I’m loving it from McDonald’s

Cartoons and Television

  • The Simpsons are owned by Fox who is owned by Disney, they have scores of lawyers that scour the internet every day looking for people using their property without permission
  • Any Disney Character – Baby Yoda and The Mandalorian, Lino, and Stitch, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin, etc.
  • Star Wars – R2D2, X-Wing or Tie fighters, Mandalorian armor
  • Marvel Characters or the logos for those characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc.
  • DC Comic Characters and their logos – The Punisher, Batman, etc.

 Videogames

All aspects of a game, including the characters, the game logo, etc. Among Us, Pokémon, Kirby, Mario, etc. This is especially true with the Among Us franchise, they are a smaller company and are currently working toward creating their own merchandise. The developer has requested that people making PoD gear with their designs please stop.

Music

Music, lyrics and band logos are all copyrighted and should not be used in your designs. This includes just a few words from a song or the musical notes for a song’s passage. Art from album covers should also not be used, even if it is “only part” of the artwork. 

Too many rules

It can seem like with all these areas that you cannot make designs from, that there is some sort of conspiracy or the world is against you making merchandise for your favorite band, or game. The reality is that if you make a shirt with the Nike Logo or the words Just Do It and you make money, then you are making money off of a brand that you do not own. Another example is the team that made the game Among Us. They worked very hard on their game and there was a significant investment in time and money that went into creating the game. It is not right for you to take their characters or other aspects of the game and make a design so you can make money off their hard work. You might think that a big company like Starbucks would not care if you made a design with their logo, but they most certainly will. The design you make can hurt the brand, and this can get you into even more trouble. While searching, I saw a Baby Yoda drinking a beer with a pot leaf, alcohol and drugs can do even more harm to a brand by associating them together in a design, and Disney would be even more aggressive defending this sort of case. 

Conclusion

So, if you can’t use any of these properties when making your design, what are you supposed to do? Create your own stuff. But what if your design isn’t as exciting or interesting without the words Just Do it? Create your own catchphrase, don’t expect Nike, who spent millions marketing Just Do It to let you use it for free. What if your design isn’t as cool without the Among Us characters? Create your own. It is all plain and simple. If you didn’t create the art/character/drink etc. DON’T USE IT!

Now get out there and get designing!

When you are researching content for new designs searching the status of copyright should be one of your most important steps. Why take the time to create a design and upload it to your Print on Demand service only to have it taken down because the design has been copyrighted or trademarked? Where is the best place to check the status of copyright? Let’s talk about it…

Disclaimer

Before we go any further, it needs to be made absolutely clear that I am not a lawyer, and comments, information, observations, and suggestions in this article are for your information only and should not be considered to be legal advice in any way. If you have questions about whether you have violated copyright law or need advice on legal matters of copyright, I advise you to seek counsel of an attorney who specializes in copyright and copyright law.

What is copyright?

Copyright and Trademarks are the most important kind of Intellectual Property (IP) protection that need to be considered when discussing or creating designs for Print on Demand.  You will often see people refer to intellectual property when discussing the use of copyrighted or trademarked designs in PoD forums, but what is intellectual property? IP is works created from the mind including literary and artistic works, inventions, designs, symbols, names, and images used in commerce. Intellectual property rights protect artists’ work from being copied and used without their permission (we don’t ever see that in print on demand, do we?).

While intellectual property protections extend to four different types, copyright, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets, only copyright and trademarks are generally applicable to print on demand artists. Patents and Trade secrets are more applicable to the back-end printing side of PoD, so we won’t discuss those in this article.  

How do Copyright and Trademark differ?

You often hear copyright and Trademark used interchangeably, but they mean two very different things. Copyright is intellectual property protection geared toward literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from paintings, photographs, books, music, videos to technical drawings, maps, and advertisements. A trademark is a type of intellectual property geared toward items that help define a brand, such as company name, logo, or symbols, and that help distinguish one entity from another. When you create a print on demand design, it is covered under copyright once it has been published. The definition of being published varies so be sure to read up on the current definition if you find yourself in a copyright legal battle.

A trademark is like the Nike “Swoosh”, which is a symbol that defines the apparel company, and differentiates it from other clothing companies, even if they make similar items. Think of the difference between Nike and Adidas, you know their logos and they are instantly recognizable. This is why trademark protection is important, if you were to use a design that “played off” or parodied the logo of a company like Nike, they would be well within their right to come after you especially for print on demand because you would be using their logo on clothing, which would be in direct competition and they could easily demonstrate their loss of revenue form your using their logo.

Copyright protection allows the creator of a piece of art or song to make and sell copies of their works, to create derivative works, and to perform or display their works to the public.

Fair Use

Fair use is often cited as a right to use something that was published on the internet. This is where things get a bit muddy. A copyrighted work can be used for educational purposes, research, parody, or commentary. Ah, there we go! Does that mean you can use the Baby Yoda character riding a Nike swoosh if you put funny words and treat it like a parody? No. it will likely not be considered fair use if it’s for commercial gains, like print on demand. This also applies to the impact on the market, if you sell that shirt with the Nike logo, you are taking money (potentially) out of the pockets of the rightful copyright or trademark owner.

The more creative the work, the more heavily it is protected under copyright. Artwork, novels, songs, poems, and movies involve a lot more creative effort, and copying this type of material is less likely to support a claim of fair use. This is why you can’t legally use lyrics from a Beatles song in your print on demand design. Even though you might not put the title of the song in your design, the lyrics and music are all copyrighted and cannot be used without permission.

This leads to the final argument for fair use, and that is the fictional 10% rule, which says as long as I change 10% of the design or work I can use it. This is commonly cited when discussing EDM or Rap songs that use samples. There has been a myriad of court cases around this 10% rule and most of them failed. It is just better safe than sorry in this case. Don’t use copyrighted work period – not even parts. 

Words Matter

How do you know if the work you want to use is copyrighted? The simple rule of thumb is that if you didn’t create the work you can’t use it. If you drew a “fanart” Pokémon you cannot use it in your shirt design. If you didn’t write the song, you can’t use the lyrics in your design. If you didn’t take the photograph you can’t use it in your design.  But what about words? Words used in specific orders can be trademarked “Let’s get ready to Rumble” is copyrighted by ring announcer Michael Buffer and cannot be used without permission. “Just Do It” is owned by Nike and also cannot be used without permission from Nike.

How do you check copyright?

If you come up with a cool phrase or want to know if a phrase can be safely used in your design, check the phrase in the following websites. In general, if the listing says that it is live, then it is a phrase or word, or symbol that should not be used in your designs. If the phrase was trademarked or copyrighted at one time but the copyright has expired, then you should be able to use it safely. Use your best judgment, use caution, and if you have questions check with a copyright attorney. Again – I’m not suggesting a course of legal action here, just illustrating my copyright workflow.

USPTO Search trademark database | USPTO

Middle of the page – click Search our Trademark Database (TESS) and enter your term. This will show if there are entries for your phrase and if it is currently live.

United States Copyright Office: WebVoyage (loc.gov)

You can search by title, name or keyword in this search field.

Where’s my house?

If you have searched the above references and still aren’t sure whether you should use the phrase or logo in your designs, it is always better to not use them. For me, the amount of money I will get from the sale of the shirts is not worth risking my personal assets. If you want to use a copyrighted work, you can always contact a copyright attorney, they can determine the owner of the property and contact them for you. The attorney will negotiate a use cost and restrictions and you can go from there. If that sounds like way too much trouble and money to go through for a shirt design – you are correct. That is why it is just better to move on.

Conclusion

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Get out there and get designing!

The short answer is: it depends. Before we get to the good bits here, let me state that I am not a lawyer, and nothing in this article is intended to replace the advice of legal counsel. If you have specific questions about using images downloaded from the internet in your print on demand designs, I always suggest contacting a copyright attorney. Ok, now the rest of the answer: The long answer to this question lies in the source of the image you procured from google. There are stock photography websites like Shutterstock and Adobe Stock which allow you to license their images for personal or commercial use, and the price you pay will be significantly more for commercial use (and the restrictions of how it can be used are more stringent.). So, at this point, you might be asking yourself can I or can’t I use the images I find on google for my designs?

It is complicated

Before you use an image downloaded off google in your design you need to be aware of the legal rights of the image holder, the person who actually took the photo or made the image you want to use. Has this person released the content into creative commons where anyone can use it as they see fit? Have they released it to stock sites so they can make a per-image fee from its use? If you are not 100% sure of the source of the image and how it can be used, then don’t use it. Artists have rights, and their images come with inherent copyright just lie your print on demand designs do. If you create a cool design and upload it and someone steals it right away, how do you feel that they are making money off the design you made? Is this starting to make a little more sense now?

Long term considerations  

If you download an image from a stock website and use it in one of your designs do you know your rights? If the stock site goes out of business does the license you are using the image under still apply? Or are you required to take your design down? If you get dinged for copyright on one of your print on demand sites do you have a copy of the image license on file that you can access if you need it? If you get sued would you be able to produce a verifiable license agreement (even if the website was out of business) for the image you used and made money from?  

Pexels

If the source of the image you are using is a website like pexels.com then according to their license agreement, you can (as of this writing) use images downloaded from their site for commercial applications like blogs, websites, commercials, and even print on demand designs. I would of course refer you to their site for the most current restrictions in their license agreement.

Here is a link to the Terms and Conditions for Pelxels:

https://www.pexels.com/terms-of-service

Is it worth the trouble?

This all sounds like a lot to keep track of. If I download an image from Pexels I have to keep a copy of the license agreement and I have to actually read the agreement to ensure that my application is not voiding my license for that image? I also must keep track of the sources I have used in my designs and ensure that the licensing has not changed for the materials I am using in my designs? Yes. The alternative is that you get sued and lose your car, house dog, etc. Again, I will state that I’m not a legal scholar but I have a lot of experience with licensed properties, and believe me if you are being taken to court over copyright infringement you should be concerned. Most lawyers won’t take a case unless there are clear and current materials representing the copyright claim. You do have an LLC (limited liability corporation) that you run your design business through just in case, right?

Everyone is in the same boat

So what if you are like the many out there who are doing print on demand designs with no graphic design background or skills? You don’t have the ability to make cool designs yourself so you scour the internet for clipart and images you can use for your designs. Well, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but there are a lot in the print on demand industry who do exactly the same thing you do. When you use images from Pexels, yes, they are useable in commercial designs, but realize that everyone else is also using the images from Pexels in their designs as well. Print on demand is a very saturated market to be in and when you are working in a saturated market, you need to figure out what you can do to set yourself apart from the crowd.

Set yourself apart

If a customer comes to Redbubble and searches for “I love coffee” shirts, and five results come up, two with just words, two with the same coffee cup image from google images and the words and one with a cool character holding coffee which one do you think is going to sell? Generally, depending on the design the more unique offering will be the one that sells. So how do you get to be the guy selling the unique design instead of the cookie-cutter design everyone else is doing? Take some classes, get real software like photoshop and illustrator and learn to use them. If you are using the free options, pre-made templates or just text designs your work is not going to stand out from the crowd. Learning to make (good) unique designs can be a long road to take, but you will sell more in the long run, and what is even cooler is that once you make your fortune from your designs you can release them to stock sites for others to license and make you even more money from. Cool huh?

Conclusion

Is stealing images from the internet for your designs worth it? No. at best, your images will get copyright flagged and taken down, at worst you will get sued and the money you made from that design will have to go to the rightful owner (the creator of the design) and your lawyer. Take your own pictures, make your own designs, create your own illustrations and overall you will get a financial win and a moral one because you didn’t steal other artist’s work to make money.

Get out there and get designing!