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Understanding Intellectual Property - Copyright

What is Copyright?

Copyright protection

Copyright gives creators of certain works the right to control the re-use and distribution of that work (whether an exact copy or a derivative version).

What works are copyrighted?

In order for a work to be copyrighted, it has to contain original, creative expression. "Original" doesn’t mean innovative. "Original" in the legal sense means that the creator didn’t copy anyone else. Copyright is intended to strike a balance between the freedom to be inspired and the protection for those who create.

Works that lack any sufficient creative expression cannot be copyrighted. For example, facts, titles, and short phrases are not covered by copyright (though they may be covered by other rights, such as trademark).

Purely utilitarian works, such as instructions or recipes, are not covered. Everyone is free to use ideas and information.

Copyright only extends to the unique expression of ideas, not the idea itself. For example, the creator of a smiling cat design can’t stop others from creating their own smiling cat designs. They can only stop others from copying their specific design as a basis for another work.

Though copyright does not cover ideas, an idea can be expressed in many different ways, each expression will be protected by copyright. But the components of expression, such as individual words and phrases, are not generally protected. The expression has to extend beyond the individual components. Copyrightable works attain copyright protection, whether or not registered or marked as copyrights.

What is copyright infringement?

Under copyright law, you are not entitled to copy someone else’s copyrightable work without permission or unless legally permissible "fair use." You cannot digitally copy someone’s original creative expression, manually trace it, or create your own digital or freehand copy of it. You have to originate your own works, creating them yourself.

For example, in one wll-known case, a photographer was found to have copied the photograph of another artist even though he used a different model and location. The original creative details of the second photograph were so similar to the first (the look, layout and subject matter) that the court found copyright infringement.

What is the standard for determining copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement standards can vary substantially by state/country. The following consists the general standards that are most commonly applicable. We encourage you to seek legal advice in the event that you perceive similarities between your work and the work of another person.

The general test for copyright infringement is “substantial similarity.” In order to determine if a copyrighted work has been infringed, the two works must be compared. If the two works are “substantially similar” then copyright infringement has often occurred. “Substantial similarity” is a fuzzy concept. Generally speaking, if the aesthetic appeal of the two works is the same, then they are substantially similar. While you may be entitled to your inspiration from someone else’s work and to utilize at least a portion of another’s work in your design, if the resulting work is substantially similar to the copyrighted work then you have infringed.

A note on innocent infringement

Technically, you can only be guilty of copyright infringement if you have actually seen the copyrighted work. If you truly created the work independently without having seen the copyrighted work (or a work that is infringing the copyrighted work), then that is not copyright infringement. However, under the law, it is not necessarily enough for you to just claim that you never saw the prior work.  As long as you had “access” to the work and your work is somewhat similar, your work can be deemed infringing. As such, while Teespring appreciates and understands that a creator may not intend to copy or infringe, it can nonetheless occur. We are unable to reinstate your campaign solely based upon a claim that you were unaware of the other work. However, if you can provide proof that you did not have any means of access to the work in question (for example that the work was not publicly available) prior to the date you created your work, then Teespring may be able to reinstate your campaign.

What does it mean for Teespring creators?

Teespring creators are not allowed to use third party copyrighted works unless they have permission or the use is clearly legally permissible "fair use."

Here are a few examples of designs that include copyrighted works:

This design uses all original artwork, and therefore receives automatic copyright protection. Others who copy the design would be infringing upon the creator's copyright.

Copyright protects designs including logos or album art as well as written works such as scripts and song lyrics.


The owners of the creative assets used in the show the Simpson control the use of all of those assets. This is an example of a copyrighted work that may not be printed without permission of the rights holder.

What about fair use?

You might be able to use someone else's copyright in your own work, if you do it in a way that is considered legal "fair use.” However, “fair use” applies in fairly limited circumstances and is not necessarily the same as “freedom of speech.” “Fair use” is a very tricky concept, even for experts, and the rules vary significantly by state/country. Generally speaking, in the US, "fair use" allows for the use of another's original copyrighted work for the purposes of criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. In determining whether a given use is "fair," courts look at four primary factors:

  • The purpose and character of a use.

  • The nature of a copyrighted work.

  • The amount and substantiality of the portion of the work used.

  • The effect upon the copyright holder's potential market for the work.

Because Teespring feels strongly about the importance of the freedom of creative expression we do our best to consider “fair use” as part of our content review policy.  That being said, even if you think you’ve created a work covered by “fair use,” you should talk to an attorney prior to using it on Teespring. While some uses might appear “fair” to you, please understand that such works may be removed during our internal review process or in accordance with our Notice and Takedown procedures. While we are happy to consider any fair use arguments you might have, we ask that you please respect our right to make the final judgment on this issue.

Ultimately, you take full responsibility for the works you upload and display on Teespring and your use of the Teespring website indicates continued acceptance of this responsibility.

Other Resources
You can learn more about trademark and copyright using the following resources:

USPTO.gov: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office site offers a FAQ section, and a search engine where you can check for registered marks.

Copyright.gov: The U.S. Copyright office offers a helpful FAQ.

Trademarkia.com: Trademarkia also provides an easy-to-understand FAQ section and search engine.

Licensing Pages: Many brands and organizations have pages (look for a “Terms” page) that outlines their owned copyrights and trademarks.

AVVO: A website that allows users to ask for and receive free legal advice from reputable lawyers.

General Copyright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright

General Trademark: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trademark

General Publicity Rights: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personality_rights

Australia: http://www.copyright.org.au/find-an-answer/

United Kingdom: http://www.ipo.gov.uk/copy.htm

 

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