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If you have a creative idea that you want to put on a t-shirt and sell, you should consider how you will protect your intellectual property. As a t-shirt designer, intellectual property rights can help protect your original designs, and they can help you create a brand for yourself. By understanding trade marks, you can successfully market your brand and designs, protect your t-shirt designs and create agreements that let other people sell your designs as well.

This article will cover trade marks, design registration, copyright and licence agreements, to help explain the intellectual property rights you may have as a t-shirt designer.

Building a Business

Once you have started designing your t-shirts, you will want to build a business and brand to start making sales. You should take steps to protect your branding, which will help ensure that your t-shirt business succeeds.

Registering Your Business Name

As a t-shirt designer, you will want your brand name to be memorable and unique. The first thing you should do for your business is register your business name with the New Zealand Companies Office (NZCO), which runs the New Zealand Companies Register. Before registering your business name with the NZCO, you should perform a quick check to make sure your business name is original. If you submit an unoriginal business name, your application will be unsuccessful. Additionally, your business name cannot contain:

Registering Trade Marks

Once you have registered your business name, you may start to consider unique branding for your business. As a t-shirt designer, having distinctive branding will set you apart from competitors. This may be a logo or marketing phrase that will help you sell t-shirts. Trade marks can protect these branding elements, alongside anything else that uniquely identifies your brand.

Trade mark protection gives you or anybody you choose the exclusive right to use your intellectual property. It also gives you legal protection should someone infringe on your intellectual property rights. 

If you would like to register a trade mark, you can do so with the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ). You can complete the registration process online, and your trade mark will be approved if it is sufficiently original and unique. You can check the originality of your trade mark material beforehand with the trade mark search tool on the IPONZ website.

You can label a registered trade mark with the ® symbol.

Protecting Your Work

There are many different types of intellectual property. When it comes to your t-shirt designs, you will likely be working with copyright and design registration. Both of these intellectual property tools grant you exclusive rights to your designs unless you permit somebody else to use them. You will also be able to take legal action if somebody else copies your work.


Copyright will apply automatically to your t-shirt designs when you create them. It protects artistic works like artwork, books, websites, computer programs, drawings, plays, films, music and sound recordings. You receive copyright automatically when you put your design in material form. You cannot formally register copyright in New Zealand. If your drawings are sufficiently original, you will have copyright protection over them upon creation in a material form.

Design Registration

As a t-shirt designer, you might also want to register the designs you create. Design registration further protects any visual elements of your product. For you, this will be your t-shirt designs. 

To register a design, you must:

  • submit a design that is not already published;
  • submit a sufficiently original design;
  • provide a statement detailing what is novel about the design; and 
  • provide clear and detailed representations of the design.

You should provide images of the design from as many angles as needed so that your submission reflects all design elements.

Licence Agreements

Once your business is up and running, and your t-shirt designs are ready for sale, you will probably want to start marketing your t-shirts. You can create your own store if your branding is strong enough, but you may want to allow others to market and sell your t-shirts as well. A licence agreement may be helpful in this situation.

A licence agreement allows others to use and sell your intellectual property while you retain the rights. You can tailor licence agreements to suit your needs.

For example, you can determine:

  • how others can market your t-shirts;
  • how long they can market your t-shirts; and
  • how much they pay you per t-shirt.

Key Takeaways 

Creating a strong brand and protecting your work will help ensure that your new t-shirt design business thrives. Having a registered business name and trade marks can help you establish yourself in the market. Additionally, you can protect your designs through a design registration or copyright. A license agreement will protect your rights while allowing others to market your t-shirts. If you need assistance protecting your t-shirt designs, LegalVision’s intellectual property lawyers can help. Call us at 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I let others know my intellectual property is registered?

You can label a registered trade mark with the ® symbol and an unregistered trade mark with the ™ symbol. Business names and designs do not have a specific symbol.

What should I include in a licence agreement?

When entering into a business contract with other parties, it is best to seek legal advice. Licence agreements are complex, and an experienced intellectual property lawyer can help you navigate the complexities.

How long does intellectual property registration last?

Registered trade marks last 10 years, and registered designs last 15 years. After this point, you will need to renew your registration if you want protection to continue.

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