Starting an Apparel Business: Copyright Laws You Need to Know

The apparel industry is flooded with competitors promoting their latest designs at rock-bottom prices. You also face the difficulties in competing for advertising space with no guarantee that you’ll get a return on your investment. 

These uncertainties are also what makes running an apparel business rewarding. The thought of someone spending their hard-earned cash on your designs and to proudly wear them will make any struggling business owner feel like their effort has paid off.

However, your designs can make you or break you. There are some guidelines you need to know so that you can not only protect your designs, but stay away from legal trouble as well.

You Don’t Have to Register Your Designs

In Canada, copyright is automatic, provided that your work meets the criteria of the Copyright Act. This means that if you’re the designer, you’re the rightful copyright holder. 

If you’re working with a graphic designer to produce the designs, it is understood that you’ll own the copyright, but that’s not always the case. If your designers would turn their back against you and claim that you infringed and profited from their designs, you’ll be in trouble.

Be clear on who owns the copyright to the designs in the contract. Typically, one would engage an IP consultancy firm like Heer Law to assist with such issues. 


Registering your designs for copyright at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) has its benefits. This creates a rebuttable presumption that you are the rightful owner of the protected work. 

This means that it is easier to take legal action against the offender and you can sue them for any damages they have caused.

Understand That “Fair Dealing” Isn’t a Free Pass

Each country has its own laws or doctrines within the law that allow users to use copyrighted work without the consent of the copyright holder, provided that what they do with the work is  considered fair. 

In Canada, this user’s right is called fair dealing. In the United States, it’s called fair use. Keep in mind that these two aren’t synonymous and one set of laws will not have any jurisdiction in another country.

Generally, you’re allowed to use copyrighted material for research, education satire, criticism, review, and news reporting provided that you mention the source of the material. Even then, a court will have to determine whether the nature of the usage is considered fair.

But you can’t use a design you found in a Google search and paste it onto an apparel item for profit.

What NOT to Use in a Design

There’s a bunch of things you can use, but it’s more important to know what you can’t use. You might consider using Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan on one of your designs, but doing so can land you in trouble because the slogan itself has been trademarked.

There’s an exhaustive list on what you can’t use, but just for introductory purposes, here are some common things people wrongfully use:

  • Images of celebrities
  • Logos of sports teams, universities, schools, and other organizations
  • Characters from cartoons and television shows (including fan art)


Adam Hansen

Adam is a part time journalist, entrepreneur, investor and father.