November 28, 2023

Everything you should know about copyright and parody laws for merch designs

Creativity is a spectrum that can span as wide as the designer’s eye takes it. What is acceptable in one person’s mind, might be totally offensive to another.

Nowadays it is becoming more and more difficult for creatives to draw the line between funny parody designs and actual copyright that is going to land them in hot water.

It is very tricky to be forced into boundaries as a merchandise designer, but it is important to know when you have crossed the line. Being able to express your creative ideas is one thing, but being sued by a multi million dollar corporation is a whole new ball game.

What is a Parody?

Parody is used heavily in the “Family Guy” animated series.

When a designer thinks they are doing a parody on a new piece of merchandise it might actually be breaking a ton of copyright rules without them even realizing. A parody occurs when an artist makes fun of a popular or well known work by copying it in a comedic fashion.

This may then push the boundaries to which the artist is copying material protected by copyright law. The product could then be considered a copyright infringement unless it is excused by the fair use defense.

As long as the parody is considered to be transformative, it might just get away with it. Whether it expresses a new character, angle or different purpose, it needs to convey something completely different to the original trademark in order to avoid trouble.

Keep Your Designs Lawful

It is important to remember that unauthorized use of copyrighted work might land you in serious trouble with the law. Crediting the source doesn’t always protect you against an infringement claim either.

Although acknowledging the original source has its benefits, it still doesn’t negate from the fact that their work was used without permission. The safest route to take is to ask for official permission from the copyright holder before you attempt to use their characters, designs, fonts or wording, even if you already believe it is being used ‘fairly.’

Overall, taking on this advice with regards to copyright laws will protect your assets, money and company reputation.

Originality is Key

The take home message from this should be that originality will keep you out of hot water. You don’t want to ruin your reputation as a creative by ripping off somebody else’s work; it simply won’t be worth it in the long run.

When parodies aren’t executed correctly they can cost your company a serious amount of money and damage your reputation. It is absolutely fine to run with topical and funny parody shirts, but you also need to be careful that you’re not breaking the law in the process.

Mixing and matching known characters (or “mash-ups”) doesn’t necessarily make it original either, so keep this in mind at all times. “Mash-Ups” like these often get cease and desist letters.

You may get away with this for a little while, but sooner or later, especially if something you made becomes popular, it could end up costing you legal fees

The Best Bet?

Start getting original with your custom designs so you don’t have to worry about receiving an unexpected cease and desist from a corporation who could easily take you down

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