The Rise Of ‘Officially Licensed’ Print-On-Demand T-Shirts (& Merch Collab)

Last Updated: June 8, 2018

For years now (maybe even decades) – the print-on-demand t-shirt industry has benefitted from – and contributed to – and incredible amount of Intellectual Property Infringement.

That infringement went largely unnoticed – or was ignored – for a long time, but increasingly the victims (or potential victims) of such infringement have begun to stir, and to realising what is going on.

In response to that stirring, some new opportunities are springing up.

The most recent and high-profile example of this is Amazon’s new ‘Merch Collab‘ program.

Merch Collab allows brand owners (current examples include Rick and Morty and Shane Dawson) to collaborate with independent designers (you and me) and split the rewards.

You create designs, brand owners approve them, they go out for sale on Amazon.com – and you get a cut of the sale price (assuming they sell).

The concept isn’t new – sites like Threadless, Designbyhumans, TheYetee, FanPrint and others have been selling ‘Officially Licensed’ designs (sourced from independent, non-in-house designers) for a while now.

What’s different with Merch Collab is the Amazon part. Combining official brand licensing with (assumed) existing traffic on the world’s biggest online marketplace – plus the prime shipping bit.

It’s also – to the best of my knowledge – the most developed ‘licensing collaboration platform’ (or whatever you want to call it) that currently exists anywhere – allowing designers to submit designs directly to brand owners on a ongoing basis, and then to see responses and results in realtime.

What This Means For You

The Merch Collab platform is brand new, but I think it’s an indication of where things are heading in the organic print-on-demand space:

  • More ‘officially licensed’ stuff from big brands.

  • Less room for ‘non-brand’ entities (that probably means you) to compete – at least organically.

To illustrate what I mean – I did a search on Amazon.com for ‘Fathers Day Shirt

The 2nd Organic Result is this:

Marvel Fathers Day Shirt

Further down, I found this:

Star Wars Fathers Day Shirt

…and there were more than a few other ‘brand related’ results.

What’s my point here?

‘Fathers day’ is not a brand-related search term. (I didn’t search for ‘Marvel Fathers Day Shirt’ or ‘Star Wars Fathers Day Shirt’.)

And yet right up there – BAM – big brand, officially licensed products are winning the battle for a non-brand-related search term.

(As you would expect them to – because people love – and therefore buy – Marvel and Star Wars related stuff.)

This is, in my opinion, the direction of travel.

Even ‘free for all’, ‘public domain’ search terms, niches and markets that were once wide-open opportunities, are going to be increasingly dominated by high-quality officially licensed apparel.

So does that mean you should start trying to create officially licensed stuff?

well, let’s see…

Is Merch Collab Worth It?

First – what are the pros for designers?

  • The ‘right’ (or ability) to legally and officially tap into existing brand traffic (and sales) that were previously off-limits. Imagine, for example, that you were suddenly able to create ‘Star Wars’ designs (Star Wars is not a Merch Collab brand partner – this is just an example) – and sell them on Amazon.com just like any other Merch By Amazon design. Well that should – all else being equal- be a lot more profitable than producing another generic Father’s Day shirt, or whatever. Because thousands (millions?) of people go to amazon.com every day and search ‘Star Wars T-Shirt’. And now you could legitimately, officially, have a way to get in front of those people with your designs.
  • Less Low Level Competition, More Advantage For ‘Real’ Artists. Merch Collab is not available to everyone, nor can existing Merch By Amazon sellers automatically enrol. You have to get approved, which should keep out the lower-quality ‘designers’ (not to mention copycats and improve-cats).
  • Advantage For Those With Knowledge Of A Brand & ‘Concept-ing’ Ability. If you are a huge Neil deGrasse Tyson fan, you probably know what other Neil deGrasse Tyson fans would like to wear. That puts you another step ahead – not just of other Merch sellers but particularly of other Merch Collab artists (your new competition). Furthermore, if you’re good at the whole ‘t-shirt concept’ (or ‘ideas’) game – you could be streets ahead of other qualified designers, and quickly rise to the top.
  • Partnership With A Brand. Brands are in this game to make money too – and when they win, so do you. So it’s not just existing organic traffic that you stand to benefit from – it’s (hopefully) additional traffic coming from these brands as they regularly promote their new products (featuring your designs).

Ok – what about the cons?

  • No Guarantees, Spec Work. With Merch Collab, your designs have to be approved by the brand in question…which means you could be producing stuff that never gets used (and therefore for which you never get paid). I suppose it’s debatable whether that constitutes spec work (I mean – all organic POD platforms involve speculation – that’s the nature of the business model) – but we can certainly say that if you’re looking for sure-thing designs guaranteed to sell – this ain’t it.
  • Lower Royalties. When compared with what designers can expect to make on Merch By Amazon at identical price-points – the Merch Collab Royalties are significantly lower. So what’s the point then? Well, as previously discussed, the high level of traffic (and therefore sales) you might expect could make it worthwhile. It’s the same reason designers like myself accept lower royalties from sites like TeeFury – because they bring lots of traffic and therefore generate higher numbers of sales. Would you rather 10% of $1000 or 30% of $200?
  • It All Depends On The Brands. Merch Collab has a relatively small roster of brands signed up right now – so you may not find any that you know about, or are able to confidently design for. But new brands are constantly being added, so there’s always a chance of something more ideally suited to your style popping up. For the more confident, flexible and skilled designer, there’s little harm in trying to tap into what’s already there and testing the waters.
  • You Can’t Re-Use What You Create. If you create a potential design for Rick & Morty you won’t be able to go and use that anywhere else – regardless of whether or not it got approval. This is very much a ‘walled garden’ – and unlike your standard Merch By Amazon designs – you won’t be able to re-use, re-purpose or re-sell.

Ultimately it’s up to you as a designer to decide if it’s worth your time – I can personally only say that I’m keeping a close eye on the platform and looking forward to what opportunities may come from it.

On the other hand – Merch Collab is another example (like Merch, Redbubble, Etsy, etc.) of platforms on which you surrender control in exchange for potential benefits. It’s hard to see how Merch Collab would form part of a long-term income for a designer trying to grow a business; so in that sense it’s perhaps better to view it as something akin to a TeeFury 24-hr print – a ‘short term’ opportunity-led cash generator (but not a steady, long-term income source).

So my final piece of advice would be this: into one basket must all eggs never go. (or something like that).

If you want to build a long-term, sustainable business from your creative work, then you must do that across a lot of channels, and ultimately utilising things you can control – things like a Shopify store (or similar), Paid Advertising, A Dedicated Social Media Following etc. (more on that topic here: Why You Should Start Building Your Own T-Shirt Brand Today).


OK that’s all I got on that subject – if you want more musings from me – be sure to join my newsletter below!


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Published by Michael Essek