Intellectual Property: What to Know for Your Print on Demand Business
This precautionary article is based around the possibility that, especially at the start of their print on demand journey, an innocent cellphone case shop or t-shirt business can easily wander into some dangerous legal issues. That’s because certain designs, images, logos, and mascots are fiercely guarded.
Once upon a time (in 2019), a budding entrepreneur had an idea for a design derivative similar to that of the iconic Mickey Mouse silhouette. The merchant slapped his adaptation on a few products–which started selling. Shortly thereafter, the formerly thrilled merchant received a cease and desist letter from Disney for profiting off of their intellectual property (IP). The owner continued business, however, resulting in a head-on lawsuit against the finest lawyers of “the most magical place on earth.”
The goal of this blog is to make sure that you don’t get served with a similar scenario in your type of business.
The content of this blog is not to be taken as legal advice, but to be used as general, helpful information. As some of this data is fairly dense, here’s a quick checklist to make sure any print on demand merchant’s business plans are safe from IP infringement (see also, our guide on what is eCommerce).
Know the Common Types of IP: There are important differences between the categories of IP that affect how improper usage will impact merchants.
Utilize the Public Domain: This is a free-for-all zone that anyone has full permission to use for their own commercial profit.
Do a Free Web Search: If there is any doubt regarding the validity of an idea, finding out is straightforward, simple, and free.
Adapting Material Properly: Know what is legally feasible before putting a shop’s reputation and business behind it.
Acknowledge Other Restrictions: Just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it’s ok.
01. Know the Common Types of IP
In short, IP is any nonphysical process, invention, information or idea owned by a company or individual. The important part is that these intangible, but very real, assets can be bought, sold, transferred, and otherwise treated as ‘normal’ products.
Unfortunately, many people think there’s little difference between patents, trademarks and copyrights. While there are similarities between these variations, each has different regulations and capacities.
Here are the four most common types of intellectual property:
This designation is primarily responsible for encouraging the commercialization of innovation through technological achievement. When an inventor, designer or creator receives a patent for a piece of work, that effort is officially disseminated to the public. Then, it can be utilized (or even improved upon) by society at large, with certain privileges extended to its creator. The downside with patents is that their implementation process is infamous for being time-consuming, complicated, and expensive.
Traditionally pertaining to the protection of brands, these don’t have to be officially registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to be protected. However, registration is commonplace. A trademark is a general, encompassing security for a brand; defined as “words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors” that a particular company can be immediately identified by.
These are similar to trademarks, but tailored more toward guarding artistic, musical, literary, choreographed, or cinematographed works - like videos, songs, books, dances, computer programs, etc. So, a book company could trademark their name while copyrighting any books that they produced. A business must copyright a given work if they intend to sue another entity over profiting from the copyrighted work.
This is any potentially harmful information that employees would acquire while conducting a company's business. To prevent the spread of such mission-critical material, non-disclosure agreements (NDA) are used traditionally, but not always, during hiring processes.
02. Utilize Public Domain
Public Domain is a beautiful term for a state of existence in which a concept, idea, character or design is essentially the property of all. This means that the population of the world can use whatever is in there for direct commercial benefit.
For example, it was totally fine for Baz Luhrmann to film a 1996 version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio) through the lens of a mafia gang war. This is because Shakespeare’s immortal works have long since entered the public domain.
So, if a merchant is using designs that aren’t originals, this could well become a problem. The most fundamental way to avoid trouble is for people to make things all on their own. If everything is entirely novel, things will almost never evolve into an issue. Having said that, it’s always better to find out.
03. Do a Free Web Search
However, even when playing straight, it’s possible to fall into infringement. It’s a good thing that there’s the option to search for a questionable name, title, product, etc., to see if that definition is already in play. This is also a great way to find out if there are any unwanted or unusual associations with that name that could deter business.
Moving on, it’s a simple process to go straight to the source: official databases. It’s well worth the time to search these out, as encroachment will lead to different, ultimately undesirable outcomes.
Trademarks and patents can be identified at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) or the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Registered copyrights are discoverable at the Canadian Copyright Database and the United States Copyright Office.
04. Adapting Material Properly
The thing is, human ingenuity can’t be entirely curbed by the powers that be. We will always find room to adapt, joke around, belittle, pivot, combine, superimpose or mashup works that others have made–like the widespread modification of the keep calm and carry on slogan.
Fortunately, there are many methods to turn a protected idea into a profitable product.
Here are a few ways to put a fresh (and legal) spin on things:
Anything in the public domain is ok
Political figures, national flags and universal symbols are all fair game
To use another person’s photos, get their permission first
Only use direct quotes from authors dead over 70 years
On the flip side, here are a few points regarding approaches that should be avoided at all costs.
Don’t use popular fictitious characters (like superheroes and 007)
Stay far away from celebrities
Refrain from using, or parodying, any big brands
Memes are popular (and hilarious), but unsafe
As there are other restrictions, it’s best to always do research before backing any design, concept, etc.
05. The Limits of Creativity
As merchants expand their commercial potential, it’s a given that people will frequently come up with great ideas for new merchandise based on things they’ve seen, heard, enjoyed, experienced, shared, and so on.
So, when a merchant bases one of their product’s design, text or art on the intellectual property of another, they should go to sufficient lengths to transform the original piece into an entirely different version according to the eyes of the law. Some print-on-demand products, particularly t-shirts businesses, have become notorious for ripping off trademarked content.
With this in mind, it’s important to realize that some content isn’t appropriate to print, even when it doesn’t overlap with the IP of other parties. Here’s an easy list of Printify guidelines on suitable product ideas.
The Limits of IP
Whenever a brand starts taking off, possessing the rights to that IP is the best way to keep that enterprise financially feasible. The concept is so fundamentally important to capitalism that it was added to the Constitution of the United States in 1790.
Things have changed since then. Disney has become an integral part of IP’s evolution, fronting an extensive campaign to continually extend copyright licensing rights as a whole. It was all to keep the original Mickey Mouse incarnation private, delaying the profitable rodent’s entrance into public domain until 2024 – it surfaced almost a century before (in 1928).
However, once the character is finally released, any so-inclined entrepreneur can make their own steamboat willie interpretation, maybe even transforming it into their own branded IP, profiting wildly off merchandise sales, and living happily ever after.
Copywriter at Printify
Riley Tanner applies a journalistic background to efforts as a ghostwriter and copywriter in the production of attractive, marketable content regarding eCommerce, POD, extraction, etc.