The most important thing a T-shirt designer/business owner needs to know before they start selling is the copyright and trademark laws. While there are numerous images, symbols, and materials you can incorporate in a T-shirt or other product design, not all can be used without permission. To protect themselves, businesses should know how to perform a trademark search on the logo design and phrase used. This will help ensure that you avoid wasting time (what if the logo/phrase is already taken) and money. The last thing you want to do is end up with boxes full of inventory you can’t sell because you’ve unknowingly infringed on someone’s copyrights. You can also end up in court because you didn’t adhere to the current trademark rules.
Trademark vs. Copyright
Although both trademark and copyright options carry intellectual property protection, they protect different kinds of assets. A trademark protects things that help define a business’s brand, like its logo. Copyright, on the other hand is geared toward artistic and literary products, like books and videos.
How to Perform a Trademark Search
Before applying for a Trademark, search the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS), United States Patent and Trademark office’s (USPTO) database. The database will help you find out if anyone has already claimed trademark rights on a specific mark via a federal registration. Visit http://tmsearch.uspto.gov/ (will work only if copied and paste into your browser)
It’s important to remember that marks don’t have to be identical to cause a conflict. Trademark infringement, while being a legal standard, isn’t always exact so it might be worth hiring an attorney to help navigate the process.
Identify Terms for the Item
Identify T-shirts and similar other relevant products offered with the trademark. Search the “Acceptable Identification of Goods and Services” manual (https://tmidm.uspto.gov) to find suitable terms for identification of goods and services, looking for terms that best describe your products and/or services. Broaden Your Search as well, searching alternative homonyms and spellings, that have similar meanings) to your mark.
Identify Associated Goods or Services, and their Classes
Identify terminology for related goods and/or services that are sold or advertised with your product (coffee cups, hats) in the “Acceptable Identification of Goods and Services” manual (https://idm-tmng.uspto.gov/id-master-list-public.html). Also, look through the “International Classification of Goods and Services” for classes associated with your product or service (http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/notices/international.jsp).
Browse Through and Assess Existing Records
As you evaluate existing records, it’s important to remember that not all of the records that appear will have approved trademarks. You’ll need to consider the differences regarding the registration number and serial number of the associated mark.
Registration numbers are assigned to a mark when the USPTO approval process has been completed.
A serial number is assigned when filing an application for a trademark and doesn’t guarantee that the trademark is going to be approved.
Look for a mark with both a serial number and registration number (that’s Live). Next, review your findings and check out what’s listed under “Goods and Services”. If you find that the goods and services for the mark don’t relate to apparel items, including T-shirts, you’re all set.
What If My Mark is Rejected?
There are several reasons why your mark may be rejected, including the “likelihood of confusion”, meaning that items are so similar that consumers would erroneously believe they are offered by the same source. For more information about your mark being rejected visit http://tess2.uspto.gov/webaka/html/Likelihood/Likelihood_of_Confusion.html.
A registered trademark greatly expands the legal protections available to your brand and protects your intellectual property. That said, it’s important to double-check your T-shirt design works (logo/phrases/etc.) to ensure that they follow the copyright laws rather than facing unpleasant legal and monetary issues.
Let us know if you have any questions regarding this matter.
Dan from the SpeedySep Crew