What constitutes the violation of copyright law?

UPDATED: Oct 1, 2014

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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


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 8 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.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although AttorneyPages.com has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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