Avoiding Plagiarism

Hello everybody, newbie here,

What are some copyright/trademark laws that I would need to worry about when making signs for sale? I would assume that selling a logo would be illegal, but what are the specifics we need to worry about?

Thanks in advance!

The legal considerations are:

  • fair use
  • copyright
  • trademark

To some degree, a fan may create imagery to demonstrate their affiliation — fair use

The person who creates a sufficiently original image has copyright of it and may control its use

A person or entity who is involved in trade may exert control over their trade dress and a distinctive mark which they register so that others may not use that same appearance and lay claim to those designs in trade.

Anything which you draw up yourself, which isn’t intentionally copies from someone else should be fine. If you copy an image or logo, but use it in a way which isn’t overly commercial it may fall under fair use.

The safest course is to stick to one’s own original designs, and to use public domain or creative commons images.

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First, I’m not a lawyer. Second, there is a difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. I’m not going there.

Logos: selling them isn’t illegal in the right context (a custom Ford sign for a Ford dealer/licensee for example is totally fine). This is generally a trademark issue. It’s actually a little unclear if you make a sign with a logo on it for an unlicensed customer if that’s your problem or not - you’re not selling the logo, you’re selling the service of making the sign -in that case-. This is different than somebody picking your sign off a shelf because it has a Ford logo on it (which would be illegal - you’re trading on their trademark) . There was a huge Kinko’s lawsuit in the 90’s about this and their liability because they supplied the copiers.

The whole topic is mired in exceptions and nuances (ie. “Fair Use” is a simple concept, but complicated in practice)

  1. If you drew it, and it’s all original work, you composed it your of your own mind, you’re probably clear. Of course, there’s a lot of stuff out there, and someone, somewhere is going to claim you copied it if there is any resemblance and enough money involved.
  2. If you are copying something (either explicitly, or by redrawing, or modifying) you’re flirting with trouble. Sometimes this is ok, sometimes not.
  3. If you’re making it for your own use, and not intending to “trade” on that, you could be ok. An example here would be making a t-shirt with your favorite bands logo on it. If you make one for your use, and wear it, that’s generally ok. If someone walks up to you and says “That’s cool, make me one!” that’s generally not.

If you ever think to yourself some variant of “but I’m so small nobody would care” - you’re almost certainly violating copyright.

That all sounds pretty bad. But…

You -CAN- license clipart and images, and there are a number of sources to do so very easily and inexpensively. You can buy DVD’s and CD’s full of artwork/clipart that are licensed specifically for these sorts of uses, and there are many online sources as well, like freepik.com (their license is largely “free” for personal use, and a few dollars per image cluster for commercial use/redistribution etc, but it varies, so read them). Determining if something is public domain or not can be difficult, and not every creative commons license is going to be compatible with everything you could want to do, but many are.

So, that’s my take. I’m not a lawyer. Did I mention that?

Edit: I forgot about these guys, vecteezy.com - I’ve used a lot of their stuff, and I find them easier to deal with than freepik for commercial stuff. https://support.vecteezy.com/hc/en-us/articles/115003125312-What-does-commercial-use-mean- 15 downloads is $19, a given download will generally have a bunch of usable elements (https://www.vecteezy.com/vector-art/83293-vector-arrows-set) . They have more expensive “unlimited plans” and so forth too.

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I’ve talked to Shutterstock about their images. If a customer of yours buys an image from Shutterstock (around $29 for two images), they can send that image to you to create something for them. That does NOT give you the right to use it on any other project except for that customer. If you want to use an image from Shutterstock to sell, you have to get the extended license that costs about $200 for two images.

One thing no one thinks about when they say, “I’m too small.” While a big company might not notice you, imagine if you paid a company for the right to use their license and you went to a craft show and found someone selling a similar product as yours with the same image and they told you they just downloaded it
free off the internet. You might be inclined to contact the license owner and tell them, “Hey, this guy is using it for free; you need to give me my money back for licensing it.” That is probably enough for a large company who might not otherwise notice or care that they have to do something with the “little guy.”

Also, some companies such as Disney are pickier about using their stuff and one of the networks just shut down a Star Trek fan site that had a free 3D version of the Enterprise that you could explore.

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