What constitutes the violation of copyright law?

I want to draw and sell artwork printed onto T-shirts, inspired by pop culture, movies and television shows. The artwork will be drawn 100% from scratch and take inspiration from famous characters/scenes in movies. We are not tracing or copying but rather creating a unique piece inspired by memorable moments. I see T-shirts like this being sold worldwide and want to know what the copyright implications are?

Asked on October 1, 2014 under Business Law, Kentucky

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 6 years ago | Contributor

If you are drawing  by hand (or by computer, etc.) a character or scene based on a famous character or scene, if it is recognizable as coming from the source material, it is most likely a copyright violation; that is because copyright bars people from creating "derivative" works, or works based on, a copyrighted work. To use a comic book example: a new original hand-drawing of Marvel's "Thor"--i.e. of a blond god of thunder, wearing a similar outfit, and holding a short-handled, large-headed warhammer--would be a copyright violation, even if it is a fully new, original work. To sell a new "Thor" shirt, you'd have to go back to the original (uncopyrighted) source material (the Norse myths) and come up with your own "Thor" design that does not look anything like the Marvel Comics verions (e.g. red haired; make the warhammer look like a historical warhammer, not like a block of stone on a stick; etc.). So if it's recogizably based on someone else's character or scene, you could be violating copyright (and, in many cases, especially for more famous characters, trademark, too).

Yes, you do see shirts with copyrighted characters on them--unless the manufacturer licensed the right to use the character, they are in violation and they are just counting on the rights owner not noticing them or choosing to take action.


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