Not everyone has the gift of creativity. And some who don’t will try to profit off the backs of those that do. How can you protect yourself?
T-Shirt Design

Picture this: a T-shirt designer wanders into a large clothing outlet, only to find something they created on the shelf. There’s only one problem. They didn’t authorize it to be there, nor are they receiving any of the profits from its sale.

Hot Topic has become notorious for this kind of thing, but they’re far from the only offender. More recently, fashion chain Zara, one of the world’s largest clothing retailers, has come under fire from multiple artists who claim their work is being sold without permission. Worse, they effectively thumbed their nose at requests for attribution - perhaps they thought they could get away with abusing these artists because they were independent.

“It’s become apparent that Zara’s suppliers used Instagram hashtags for pins and patch makers as source material,” explains Adam J. Kurtz, one of the many designers taking legal action against the clothing giant. “[They are] knocking off work from a growing list of at least 18 artists in a single season’s collection.”

Kurtz has himself founded a website known as Shop Art Theft, in an attempt to hold Zara accountable for their plagiarism.

It really does sound like something out a movie, doesn’t it? An evil corporation steals from the little guy, and thinks they can get away with it just because they’re huge. And yet it happens - with somewhat alarming frequency.

What can you do if your designs are the next to get poached?

First, make sure you have proof that the design is yours - the original design documents, an old post online with the design, or some other concrete indication of ownership.

Next, ensure there’s some way the alleged thief could have come across your design - your Instagram, for example, or your personal website.

After that, take a close look at the stolen design. Is it identical to yours, or is it simply a copy? Is it distinct enough to be considered a derivative work?

Assuming they aren’t trying to sell your design, simply contact the party in question. Stay civil, and politely request that they either offer proper attribution or take the design down (whichever you’d prefer).

Failing that, get in touch with the owner of the site on which your stolen design is being hosted to report abuse. Most digital storefronts and design repositories have a pretty decent plagiarism policy.

If the guilty party ignores your request or responds with hostility, it’s time to get a little nasty and threaten them with legal action.

As an addendum to the above, if someone is knowingly selling your designs without your consent, you have a legal case against them. Contact an attorney, and draft up a cease and desist letter. If they ignore it, you’re probably going to court.

For each of the above cases, the most important piece of advice I can give you is as follows: when in doubt, contact a lawyer.

Design theft does happen. It’s important that you’re aware of that fact. There are a lot of people online who want to profit without having to put in any effort - if you’re their next target, it’s best to make sure you’re ready to fire back.

About the Author:

Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.