With the rise of viral street art, pop art and popular inspirational slogans – it’s not surprising that 64 percent of professionals had work stolen over 200 times in 2016. Knowing whether a design includes copyrighted material could mean the difference between success and a lawsuit.

Unfortunately, there’s no one site that houses every protected image or vector for you to check before you start printing. However, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to navigate.

How to Tell if Something Is Copyrighted

As a basic guideline, any work published after Jan. 1, 1978, is automatically copyrighted from creation to 70 years after the artist’s death. Anything published before Jan. 1, 1978, was required to be registered with the Copyright Office, and includes a notice of copyright © on the work. Here’s what that means:

  • Any work published before Jan. 1, 1923 is in the public domain (free use).
  • Any work created between 1923-1977 that doesn’t include a copyright notice is in the public domain.
  • All work published between 1923-1963 with a copyright that wasn’t renewed is free for use.

The “©” symbol, a watermark, a trademark, an artist’s signature, or a specific statements of ownership, are easy indicators that a design or phrase is copyrighted. It can also have the words “Protected Design”, “Prot’d Des.”, the symbol “*D*”, or the letter “D” inside a circle. It’s important to note somewhere along the way the copyright could have been photoshopped out – so if none of those options are visible, it may take a bit of research to confirm whether it is free to use or not.

As a common rule, if you right-click on a really cool vector you found and there’s no option to “save as”, it’s protected. If something is iconic, from a movie, of a celebrity, or an outline of a character – it’s probably copyrighted. For example, that really awesome outline of Black Panther probably shouldn’t be mass-produced, unless you’ve purchased the appropriate licenses. Similarly, logos and brand names are trademarked, and thus those items cannot be replicated either.

On the flip side, designs using short phrases (i.e. Weekend Vibes), standard geometric figures, familiar symbols, or anything that has become ordinary or common are NOT protected.

Where To Search For Copyright Clarification

While there’s no foolproof way to determine if something is protected, there are a few tactics you can utilize to help in your research.

First, try reverse searching the image using Google Images or reverse image-search service Berify to track how it’s currently being used. If there are little to no results or it’s not posted on any reputable site, there are better odds that the work is not copyrighted.  

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The Copyright Office also has a database of registered works, though you would have to know some detail about what you’re looking for (artist name, title of the artwork, etc), and the original author would have had to officially register it.

Lastly, if you’re handy with HTML you can try searching the metadata – often artists will hide their info there.

Determining Usage Rights and Copyright-Free Images

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the rights associated with a piece of artwork—some are fair-use only, some allow you to modify, others only allow you to print or embroider as is. If you’ve found a copyrighted design that you really love, ask the owner for permission to reproduce the original or modify the medium. If you have a license through a stock image site such as Shutterstock or iStock by Getty Images, there’s usually a note letting you know the use associated with the image before you download.

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Additionally, there are resources where you can get license-free artwork because the artists or photographers have relinquished their rights. Sites like Unsplash or Creative Commons house works that are free for anyone to use or edit.

These are just a few ways to figure out if something is copyrighted, tactics you can use to find out, and basics on determining usage rights. What does your company do to prevent running into trademark troubles? We’d love to hear your tips and suggestions in the comments below.