Copyright infringement has been a popular discussion since the Internet became accessible to billions of people around the world. Copyright infringement is especially important to be aware of with online crafting and designing.
You may have seen Disney-themed products for sale on Etsy, as well as items based on TV shows, movies, videos, etc. But are you allowed to do this? Is it against the law?
Just because others are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s okay
Many people assume that anything available on the Internet is available for free use. This is common in the blogging world (especially years ago), where bloggers would find the best image they could find on the Internet and use it on their own website. Although most of these people fly under the radar, some have been hit with lawsuits by the original owner of the photos.
Disney, in particular, is very strict about the usage of their trademarks and copyrights. However, many Etsy stores ignore this and are making money selling products based on Disney’s intellectual property (designs, logos, etc.). I DO NOT recommend selling Disney-themed products on Etsy! Doing so will open you up to potential lawsuits and Etsy store closures. It is not worth the risk.
Even if you see Etsy stores that are operating even though they are selling copyrighted products, Etsy is probably sending them copyright infringement notices demanding the shop owner to remove these products. After a number of infringement notices, their account will likely be suspended and their store will be shut down. If that store was their main source of income, then it would disappear overnight.
It is not worth the risk of selling Disney-themed products on Etsy because your store could be shut down and/or you could be sued.
Disney Sues Etsy Sellers
Imagine if you poured your heart and soul into creating a unique design, then found out that someone stole your design and made a ton of money off your hard work. Not very fun, right?
Trademark and copyright laws are important because they protect your creations (and Disney’s) from being stolen. Even though Disney is a very large company, they still deserve the same protections for their designs as you would. If Disney allows a few creators to steal their designs, then anyone could make an excuse for stealing them.
In 2020, Disney threatened to sue various Etsy sellers after issuing takedown notices for shops selling “Baby Yoda” products. It is not clear if any lawsuits actually took place, but this is likely because the Etsy sellers listened to the warnings. Most people know not to mess with a company as large as Disney.
The only option for selling Disney-themed items on Etsy is to obtain a license from Disney. Obtaining a license like this is quite expensive and probably not worth it.
You are better off investing your time and money into your own creations and designs. It would take a while for your licensing request to be approved or denied and it may have some strict limitation. Disney will also need to have confidence in your item and that it will actually sell before issuing a license to you, so this may be difficult to convince them of.
I’ll just put a disclaimer then…
You may have seen disclaimers posted by sellers of Disney-themed products such as: “Disney owns all the designs” or “All items are owned by their respective copyright owners“.
Legally, these statements mean nothing! Posting any of these disclaimers will not save you from infringement notices, lawsuits, or store closures. Personally, I think it’s worse to put these disclaimers because the seller is admitting that the designs are not theirs.
Copyright and trademark laws are complicated and difficult to understand sometimes, but if you’re making money from someone else’s design without permission, you must be sure you are not crossing any lines.
Can I Sell “Disney-Inspired” Products?
Obviously, if a character is identical to a specific Disney character it is illegal, but what if it is similar to a Disney character?
For example, let’s about Snow White. The story originates from a German tale in the 19th century. The character of the young girl eating a poisoned apple is free to use for whatever reason, but Disney’s version with the black hair, red ribbon, and blue/yellow dress is a design that belongs to Disney. Therefore, you can’t use this version of Snow White.
However, if you created an item that pictured seven dwarves in the design, you are safe to use it as long as the design of the dwarves were different from the ones in the Disney movie.
Even a silhouette of a Disney character or using a Disney font is considered to be a derivative work, therefore is still owned by Disney. You cannot use a design like that.
People will sometimes claim that their design is a parody, which occasionally allows them to slip by. However, this is a grey area that is probably is not worth the risk. If you insist on creating a parody of a copyrighted item, it is best to consult a lawyer beforehand.
Does this only apply to Disney?
While Disney notoriously pursues people who infringe on their intellectual property, they are not the only ones.
As mentioned previously, selling other copyrighted designs, such as designs based on TV shows, movies, books, etc. can land you in trouble if you do not have permission to use them. When you start earning money from someone’s copyrighted design, you immediately expose yourself to a potential lawsuit.
Any company’s logo, such as Apple or even universities, are prohibited from profiting off of. The same can apply to products related to celebrities or famous people.
Additionally, popular phrases may also be trademarked, such as “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” or “Hasta la Vista Baby”. You could not create an item containing these phrases without infringing upon copyright laws.
There are plenty of stories on the Internet about people who receive letters and lawsuit threats from large companies. You may believe that they wouldn’t care about your small Etsy store, but you may be mistaken.
In this example, a t-shirt seller received a letter asking for compensation for the years he was using a trademarked design. Even though the seller already removed the infringing item from his store, someone else was selling the finished product and got caught. This was unnecessary time and money that the seller had to spend dealing with the legal troubles.
If you’re considering selling a product that includes someone else’s design, you are better off avoiding it. Unless the owner of the design explicitly states you are allowed to sell the products, do not take the risk! Even if you don’t think the owner of the design would care, you should confirm before taking the chance.
What can I sell then?
The best way to stay safe and not to infringe on someone else’s intellectual property is to create your own designed products. In that case, copyright will belong to you and you alone. If anyone else uses your creations for commercial gain, you are able to fight them off by filing a complaint.
Creating your own, original designs is the best way to stay safe and protect yourself from infringing upon someone else’s intellectual property. If you use your own designs, the copyright will belong to you. Your work will be protected, so if anyone decides to use your creation for commercial gain you can file a complaint against them.
Take the time to create your own characters and storyline, and develop these into a uniquely identifiable brand. Basing your design on something that is already famous does not mean your products will do well. Many people are making fortunes with their own original designs, so there’s really no need to steal someone else’s work.
I do understand that not everyone has the best design skills, but there are other options. You can still find good copyfright-free images that you can use in your crafts and products. These images fall under a CC0 license, which means they can be used, in part or in full, or personal and/or commercial use.
The only problem is that it will be more difficult to create a unique product since others may be using the same design for their products. However, you can modify or customize the design to create something semi-original and differentiate yourself from the rest of the sellers. You can find copyright-free images on various websites, such as Pexels or Pixabay.
Another option if you are not a skilled designer is to hire one! It may not be as expensive as you may think. A professional design will help convert your ideas into beautiful and unique designs for you to use with your products. When you use your own designs, you have the freedom to do whatever you want with them. The design will be unique to your brand and your customers will recognize that.
Ultimately, there are many ways to create original, profitable products without risking litigation. Taking the easy route and stealing someone’s designs is not what you should be doing. Even if other people steal designs, they are not allowed to. Eventually, it will catch up to them and they will be punished in some way.
Copyright has become a pretty serious topic over the last few years, which means more people are getting busted. There are new tools that exist to help companies catch people illegally using their designs.
If you get sued, it may not just be for the money you made from the copyrighted items but for much more. It would be a shame you risk your entire livelihood and business due to something that could have been avoided.
Also, if you get sued for copyright infringement, you’ll probably have to pay more than just the profits you earned. Image risking your business, and perhaps some (or all) of your personal assets, due to something that could have been avoided.
When in doubt, consult a lawyer, or don’t do it at all! Stay safe and be wary of other people’s copyright and trademarks.