Print-On-Demand For Beginners: Your FAQs Answeredby Michael Essek · Updated: May 18, 2020
If you’re new to Print-On-Demand and selling your art online, then you probably have questions. Lots of them.
I get a lot of Print-On-Demand questions, and I see the same ones popping up time and time again.
So I thought I would start a ‘FAQs’ page for common print-on-demand questions that can serve as a useful resource for beginners and veterans alike.
I will keep adding FAQs and updating the information regularly – so if you have a question you’d like to ask, please do so by commenting below.
I hope this helps!
- Can I Upload The Same Design To Multiple Sites?
- Do I Need To Register The Copyright For My Designs?
- Do I Need To Trademark My Designs?
- Is It OK To Use ClipArt, Vector Packs, Templates and other Graphic Elements that I didn’t create myself?
- I Don’t Design, But I Have Ideas And Want To Sell Them On T-Shirts. What Should I Do?
- My Artwork Has Been Stolen! What Should I Do?
Legal Note: I am not a lawyer and none of this information should be considered legal advice. Please consult a legal professional for accurate legal advice on your situation. Also, this post may contain affiliate links for products I use and recommend.
Can I Upload The Same Design To Multiple Sites?
The short answer is yes.
This means you can upload the same design to as many of these platforms as you like. This is the case for Print on Demand sites, ‘Campaign’ sites like TeeSpring or Bonfire, and bigger marketplaces like Etsy and Amazon.
Note: The only possible exception is print-a-day sites like TeeFury, Ript, Woot and others.
Such sites may request exclusivity for certain designs – or a time-limited exclusivity (eg. we want to be the first to sell this design, but then you can upload it elsewhere after a certain time).
However, this practice is not as prevalent as it used to be, and as shirt-a-day sites operate a very different model to most POD sites – so this won’t impact you unless you’re submitting to such sites regularly (and even then, you may find they simply don’t mind anymore).
Updated Note: If you are creating designs for a brand as part an officially licensed program (eg. Redbubble’s Brand Partnerships, Teepublic’s Brand Partnerships or Amazon’s Merch Collab) – then those designs would be exclusive to the site you are making them for.
For example, if you create an officially approved Rick & Morty design for Redbubble, you are not permitted to use that design elsewhere.
Do I Need To Register The Copyright For My Designs?
Copyright is a big and complex topic – but most artists won’t need to register their copyright – unless and until a design becomes a big seller.
Once you create a design, you own the copyright to it. You don’t need to register it to claim the copyright – as long as you are the original creator, the copyright is yours by default.
Registering your design with the US Copyright Office is only of practical use were you to be the victim of an infringement (someone copying your design).
If this were to happen, then having your copyright registered would entitle you to a higher potential payout, should you bring a case against the infringer that proves succesful. (Statutory damages for copyright infringement are between $750-$30,000 – up to $150,000 in the case of wilful infringement).
Note: You would only qualify for statutory damages if your design was registered before the infringement took place – so registering your copyright after an infringement is only of a material benefit if you think your work is likely to be infringed again in future.
To summarise: If you think you are likely to be infringed AND you would be willing (and/or able) to start legal proceedings against any future infringement (this means filing a lawsuit – working with a lawyer and all the associated costs) – then – and only then – would it make material sense to pay to register your copyright with the US Copyright Office. (Copyright registration costs between $35-$55).
Alternative options for artists include;
- Uploading your artwork to a site like Pixsy. This doesn’t hold the same legal status as registering it with the Copyright office, but it may hold some legal weight as the first ‘provable’ instance of the work, plus Pixsy will search the web for potential infringements.
- Publishing your designs to your own website or portfolio on a domain you control – ideally with a visible timestamp showing when published. Again this doesn’t carry the legal status of registration, but is often taken as a reliable evidence of ownership by many POD sites – which is helpful when filing takedown requests.
For more information on the issue of copyright, including what qualifies for copyright protection and fan art questions, checkout the following articles:
Do I Need To Trademark My Designs?
Even if that were physically possible (which it isn’t) – the answer is no.
Trademarks are legally registered terms (usually business names but also slogans and occasionally logos) that exist to protect a brand from unauthorised use of it’s brand name or assets.
‘Disney’, the Nike ‘swoosh’ and ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ are trademarks.
T-Shirt Designs and artwork or illustrations would not be registered as trademarks, as they don’t qualify as such. The correct classification for protection of such works would be copyright. So Trademarks simply don’t apply.
The only instance where you may want to consider a trademark registration are:
- You have a brand name under which you are trading and you want to register that name to ensure other sellers cannot also trade under it. (Eg. you sell and promote your work under the name “Gary’s Groovy Designs” – and you want to stop anyone else from using that term when selling online). Note: this would only really make sense if your brand name is recognisable and people actively search to find your stuff using that brand name.
- You created an original phrase or saying AND built a brand around that – therefore as above, you want to protect that term from others who may want to sell using the same term. This would not apply to any and all phrases (the cost of Trademark registration alone would be prohibitive to any but the biggest companies) – but only to unique cases where your original phrase turns into more than that – and in effect ‘becomes’ the brand.
In the world of high volume print-on-demand, such situations are quite rare, but you’ll know if it happens. As such, you should probably forget about trademarks for now, and cross that bridge should you ever come to it.
Is It OK To Use Pre-made Designs, ClipArt, Vector Packs, Templates and other Graphic Elements that I didn't create myself?
I do not use any artwork in my designs that I didn’t personally create or commission, and I wouldn’t recommend the use of pre-made or print ready design services.
To build a long-term and sustainable business from your artwork, it has to be your artwork. The more ownership you have over your assets the better – and that includes ideas, concepts, designs and more.
Using other people’s assets is problematic for the following reasons;
- Clipart and Vector packs are rarely exclusive – which means anyone can take the same artwork and use it in their designs. As such your work may not qualify for copyright protection, and you could find yourself competing against hundreds of others sellers who used the same artwork you did.
- Using such graphics may render your designs unusable for offline licensing deals (and even some POD sites and marketplaces). I license my designs offline – to a number of different manufacturers and retailers. When you license a design to a company like Hot Topic, you must certify that you hold all the rights to the design, and that any legal issues relating to the copyright of the design will become your responsibility. In other words – if you say a design is yours, but it turns out it included some artwork from another artist and that artist brings a claim against Hot Topic – Hot Topic will turn around and demand repayment of any and all damages from you.
- Even if a vector pack, piece of clipart or design template says it is ‘copyright free’ or ‘cleared for commercial use’ – I am not personally able to verify that to be the case. There have been many cases of artists finding their artwork ripped off and included in a vector pack for sale somewhere…and that artist could file legitimate copyright infringement cases against any use of their work (i.e. they could come after you).
There are a few caveats I should add to the above:
- Using basic shape elements (eg. moon, star shapes, etc) is almost always going to be safe – because such elements wouldn’t pass the bar for copyright protection in the first place. So if you find free vectors of a crescent moon or a basic star shape online, you are safe to use those (assuming it really is the basic shape without detail, colour, shading etc.)
- Similar to the above – purchasing vector packs of design ‘elements’ is somewhat safer – assuming you don’t rely on them for the central substance of your design. For example, snowflake vectors used in the background of a Christmas design are probably safe, but taking one single snowflake and using that in isolation as the sole graphic of the design (with no original additions or modifications) is risky – possibly violating the terms of the licensing agreement.
In short – the safest route (where you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder) is to create almost every part of your design yourself, without using vectors or clipart from anywhere else.
I Don't Design, But I Have Ideas And Want To Sell Them On T-Shirts. What Should I Do?
You have a few options:
- Learn. You could learn all the basic graphic design skills on youtube or similar, and practice until you are capable of creating decent designs.
- Hire. You could hire an artist (or artists) to turn your ideas into designs.
In my experience, it is quite difficult for complete design beginners to effectively hire and commission artists. The better route is learning at least the basics of art and design (graphic design basics, uploading basics – creating a simple design yourself) – then spending time searching out a good designer to hire on a long term basis.
My Artwork Has Been Stolen! What Should I Do?
First of all, don’t panic.
Having work that you put your blood, sweat and tears into stolen can be emotionally draining – so first calm yourself by asking the following questions:
- Is (or was) this design selling well for you on any platform? If not, then the the theft is unlikely to make a material impact on your earnings. (This doesn’t make it right or mean you should forget about it – I simply want you to put the event into some perspective so that you don’t over-freak-out).
- Do you have evidence to suggest that the infringing design is selling well, or has ever sold at all? If not, it’s quite possible your design was scraped from a platform along with hundreds of others, and you haven’t been ‘personally’ or individually targeted – plus it’s possible that you haven’t actually lost out on any potential earnings.
- Is the infringing design being sold on an established outlet or website? If so, you will almost certainly be able to have it removed swiftly by filing a DMCA report (more on that to follow). And depending on the size of the retailer – you may be able to claim damages. If not, getting it removed may prove more difficult.
Taking the above into account, it’s a good idea to gather and record the evidence before you do anything else.
Grab the URL of the infringing website, take screenshots of any relevant sites or ads – anywhere that you see your original design being used without your permission. If this ever goes to court, having timely and well documented evidence of the infringement is going to be helpful for your case.
The next step is going to be filing a DMCA takedown. The exact process varies from platform to platform, but essentially you need to reach out to the host or retailer (not the individual seller) with the following information:
- Your Personal details (name, address, contact info)
- A link to your original artwork (this is where having your own site or portfolio online comes in handy – but you can usually also link to your design on a POD site)
- A link to the infringing work as it appears on their platform
- A declaration that this is indeed your work, you have full rights, and under penalty of perjury you certify that all this information is correct.
Once a platform has that information, they should take the infringing work down within a few days max. You should also receive a response letting you know it’s been removed.
DMCA Takedown or IP infringement report pages for the major Print-on-demand platforms:
If a DMCA takedown proves unfruitful, you could consider the ‘mob rule’ technique – of shouting about your infringement on social media and recruiting your fans and supporters to contact the infringing retailer to demand action. This has proved very succesful in the past, though it often depends on the size of your following or your reach. (You may find it more effective to ask an artist or influencer with a wider reach to raise or amplify your message for you).
The final step if all else fails is to begin legal proceedings. I would suggest a process like this:
- Hire a lawyer to send a physical letter (not an email) to the legal department of the infringing company, essentially repeating the same info as presented in your original DMCA, but threatening the instigation of legal action if nothing is done within the next few days.
- If no response is forthcoming, you may want to consult with a copyright lawyer about the next steps and the merits of your case. A lawyer should be able to advise on the viability of your case, and of potential costs and winnings.
- If you think you have a strong case and you have the ability to find the legal proceedings, you can go ahead and start – obviously you would need a lawyer to handle all this. Go get ’em!
For more info on this topic, checkout this article: Dealing With Copycats On Merch By Amazon.
Got A Question To Add?
If you’ve got a Print-on-demand question that isn’t answered here, you can ask it by leaving a comment below.
I’ll pick the best and add my answers to this article, along with other FAQs I stumble upon.
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