Let’s Talk About Stealing Art

Jesse MacKenzie
February 8th, 2018

Hey everyone! I’d like to spend a couple minutes talking about something that’s been on my mind a lot recently. It’s something we deal with a lot here at Trust, and it’s something I’ve seen a lot of people in our industry completely ignore: stealing artwork. I know that many of you don’t do this, you are diligently creating artwork or paying someone to create it for you. I also know that many of the people I see misusing artwork have no idea that what they are doing is stealing. If you fall into that second category don’t stress, you’re not alone and today would be the perfect day to start taking the high road with your designs.

What Constitutes Stealing?

This issue is very apparent to me because seemingly every other day we receive a screenshot of a design (sometimes with the URL of the actual artist’s website still visible at the top) with a message instructing us to replace some of the text or add the company’s name at the bottom. I know many of these situations come down to confusion about how ownership of digital art and design works, so let’s get on the same page and run down all the ways NOT to procure art for your garments:

1. If you find a design on Google Image Search and use it in any way without specifically receiving permission from the ORIGINAL artist, that is stealing.

This is extremely common and based on a misconception that web image searches are a resource for artwork. They are just image searches, pulling up any image that relates to your keyword without asking for permission or attribution. You can still use image searches to find art, but you MUST contact the artist for permission if it is not specifically marked as free or public domain (Google, Bing, and Yahoo have filters for License or Usage rights that will only give you images you are allowed to use).

2. If you use any work from an artist or designer without paying them fully for it, that is stealing (this includes sending us their sketches or concepts for printing without paying them for the finished work).

I’ve been on the receiving end of payment issues for design work in the past, if you have received any sort of work from a designer, please pay them promptly and fully. They are probably getting close to running out of Ramen and could use a boost.

3. If you create your design in a “t-shirt designer” on another printer’s website, screenshot it, and send it to us to create, that is stealing.

Those companies pay a lot of money to offer that creation software, including paying for the rights to print those graphics. We love that you want us to print your garments, but we don’t love stealing art from our competitors. There are many similar free and legal places to create artwork. We actually went through 6 great options in a previous blog post.

4. If you use any copyrighted characters, logos, or brands in your design without permission, that is stealing.

This is another extremely common one, and something people seem to struggle with. It is also pretty fuzzy as far as the laws go, but I will try to put it simply. If you are using someone else’s work to add value to your product without their permission or compensation, you are stealing from them. If putting Captain America or the Cowboys logo/colors on your t-shirt without permission makes it sell better, you are profiting from someone else’s work. (There is room in the copyright laws for parody and critique, but those laws are extremely subjective and DO NOT PROTECT YOU FROM BEING SUED so be very careful.)

These are just a few of the most prominent examples of what we see. It might seem complicated, but it all boils down to this: if you’re using any work that someone else did, they must be compensated and credited. We know this, we experience it in all other parts of our lives. Even people who pirate music are giving it away for free; not recording vocals over a Beatles album, putting their own name and face on it, and trying to sell it on iTunes.

Why Does it Matter?

Design in general, and especially in the poster/t-shirt category, is severely undervalued. Nobody expects their garments to be free, but many are frustrated if they have to pay for the design to be printed on them (even though many shirts are purchased primarily for the graphic, not the garment it’s printed on). It’s important to put yourself in the shoes of the person who created the art. They put time, effort, and money into creating that thing and by using it without permission, you are communicating that their work does not have value. Turning around and making money off of that art goes a step further: the design does have value, but the artist doesn’t deserve any of it.

Trust also believes very strongly in simply treating people fairly and honestly. We’ve all experienced times where we were ripped off or disrespected (you might have even experienced having business stolen from you). The first step to being treated fairly is to treat others fairly.

Stealing Art

Beyond moral reasons to respect creators and their work, all of these things I’ve mentioned are very much illegal. It is unlikely, but possible to get in very big trouble if your appropriated designs fall into the wrong hands (sports teams are notoriously strict about this). All original design is immediately, automatically copyrighted and protected. Similar to music piracy, most people who steal designs get away with it because (sadly) there are so many people doing it. However, you are probably marketing your shirts, you want as many people to see them as possible, and you want people to wear them everywhere. All it takes is one wrong person to see your shirt and you could be in major trouble.

Doing Art the Right Way

This all may seem strict or harsh, and some of you may be thinking “well where am I going to get all of my shirt designs now?” I understand the frustration, but this is important. If you’d like to join us in taking the high road and giving designers and their designs value they deserve, here are some great ways to get fantastic art without breaking the bank:

Trust Custom Art – Hey! We do design! This article is by no means an advertisement for our Custom Art services, but we do have very talented people in place to handle your design needs big and small. We’ve done some very good work for some great companies and we’d love to talk to you about your design needs. Click here for more specific Custom Art information. We charge hourly for the design, but so far on average people are spending less than $1 per shirt for a professional, custom design specifically created for them.

Contact a Freelance Designer – There are tons of freelance designers around who would love to talk about your project and create something specific and beautiful for you. Google designers near you and get some quotes or ask the nearest college student and they will assuredly have a friend studying art or design. If you are dealing with someone new to designing for screenprinting, check out this article we wrote about working with designers.

Last Resort – I’m not a huge fan of “cheap logo” sites, I don’t think it helps with people’s idea of how much design is worth. However, especially for simple t-shirt designs, it can be a great resource and it is 1,000 times better than stealing a design. Sites like fiverr can get you artwork very quickly and very inexpensively (and legally).

Stealing art is a big problem in the t-shirt industry, perpetuated by a lack of information and attempts to save money at the expense of creators. Trust tries to care about the people we work with, that means caring about our customers and the end-customers who actually own the garments we print. It also means caring about the people who create the art we work with. More cosmically, the more design and art is devalued, the less great design will be created. We love printing great designs and your customers love buying and wearing great designs, so let’s work together to stop the stealing of art for garments.


Jesse is our Creative Director. He splits his time between the Art Department and Creative duties, looking to innovate and push the company in both areas (unless he overslept.)

Filed under: Art, Respect the Art