Copyright and Your Patch Design: What You Need to Know

Copyright and Your Patch Design: What You Need to Know

It's important to be aware of copyright when designing your patches. The best way to avoid infringement is to use your own original art and text.

When you’re looking for an eye-catching design for your custom patches, it’s natural for your thoughts to turn to your interests. Let’s say you’re a huge fan of all things Disney. Or Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars.

It’s tempting to use one of the iconic characters from those franchises to make your patch pop. Who wouldn’t love to see a patch with Jar-Jar Binks promoting your brand, right? OK, maybe not the best example. How about R2D2 or Mickey Mouse?

Be careful. There’s a concept called copyright that might stand in your way. And if you run afoul of it, you could face some serious legal consequences. Let’s review what copyright is, and what you can do to stay on the right side of it.

What Does Copyright Mean?

Copyright is a simple idea, that the person who creates an original work gets paid for it and can control how that work is used. It’s been established law in the United States for more than 200 years.

The U.S. Copyright Office is the agency responsible for administering and enforcing copyright law. It defines copyright as: 

A type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression.

That first part is easy. Your work has to be an original idea. Now, let’s take a closer look at that “fixes the work” section. That half of the concept is crucial as well.

The Copyright Office explains that a work is fixed when it’s “captured … in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time.”

In plain English, that means you own anything original that you write, photograph, paint, record or draw. No one else has the right to use it or make money from it without your permission.

For an example, scroll down to the bottom of this page. You’ll see the word copyright followed by a little “c” in a circle, the symbol for copyright. Next is 2003-2024 and the name of TJM Promos, Inc., our parent company. 

That tells anyone who visits this website that we own the rights to everying on this page, and everything on our entire site from 2003 to the present day. No one else can reproduce the words or images you see here without permission from us.

And remember, copyright refers to legal rights, not writing. So it’s “copyrighted,” not “copywritten.”

How Can I Copyright Something?

That’s really easy. As soon as you record the song, write the blog post, or take the picture, you own it. You’ve copyrighted it.

What Things Can Be Copyrighted?

It’s easy to get copyright mixed up with a couple of other things, patents and trademarks. While similar, they are different concepts. Copyright applies ONLY to expression, not to ideas, processes, concepts or method. That’s where patents come in. Copyright also doesn’t apply to names, titles, slogans, symbols or designs – trademark covers those.

Your business can have all three. You can patent your unique process, trademark your brand and logo, AND copyright your website content, all at the same time. 

The easiest way to remember is that copyright is the one that applies to original, creative works. 

How Long Does Copyright Last?

It’s complicated. It depends on when the work was first created. Copyright isn’t meant to last forever. Generally speaking, anything created after 1977 is protected for the life of the author plus another 70 years. Works created earlier than January 1, 1978 generally last for 95 years, but there are exceptions.

Public Domain

Once the copyright protection period for a work expires, that work enters the public domain

As of 2024, most works published before 1929 have entered public domain, which means you can use material (images, text, etc.) from them freely. 

See the image at the top of this post? That’s Steamboat Willie, the original incarnation of the beloved rodent we know today as Mickey Mouse. The copyright for that image expired January 1 -- 95 years after it was first created – so we’re free to use it. It’s in the public domain. However, we cannot use newer art of Mickey Mouse without permission from Disney.

Keep in mind that copyright laws vary from country to country. Something that's in the public domain in the United States might not be in another country, and vice versa. It pays to check the public domain status before using any work that’s not your own. And remember the general rule – when in doubt, leave it out.

How Can I Still Use My Favorite Copyrighted Image?

It is possible to use a copyrighted work if you get permission from the owner. If they agree, you can pay to license the material from them. Not all copyright owners will agree, and if they do, licensing fees can be extremely expensive, especially for popular works or characters.

If you try to have your patches made without proof of licensing, good luck. No reputable patch producer, including, will knowingly violate copyright law.

Read the terms and conditions of the sales agreement with your patch provider. There will always be a clause in there which you agree to by purchasing from them that says you, not the company, will be responsible for any copyright infringement. That same clause will also say you’re responsible for any damages or expenses the patch producer incurs as a result of your failure to observe copyright law.

What Happens if I Violate Copyright Law?

It’s important to remember that copyright infringement is literally stealing someone else’s intellectual property. That theft can carry legal penalties both civil and criminal. And many copyright holders, especially larger corporations are extremely protective of their material. The legal costs can add up against an opponent with much deeper pockets than yours.


If you’re caught using someone else’s copyrighted material, the owner will probably send a Cease and Desist letter. If you stop using the material, stop distributing it and never repeat your mistake, that’s probably the last you’ll hear of it.

If you don’t stop the infringement, things can escalate. You could face civil fines of up to $30,000 for each work you infringe.

Let’s say you didn’t stop and sought to profit from the infringement. You could then face federal felony charges. If convicted, you could be sentenced to up to five years in prison, and fines of up to $250,000.

Exceptions to Copyright

There are multiple exceptions to copyright that enable you to use copyrighted material for specific noncommercial purposes. These “Fair Use” exceptions include, among other things:

  • Quotation, criticism and review
  • News (excluding photos)
  • Education
  • Research and private study
  • Parody and pastiche

How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

Fortunately, there’s a really easy way to avoid violating copyright law. Create your own original work! Design a unique patch all your own and you’ve created your own copyright. At, we’ll be happy to help you create your own design that’s perfect for all your patch needs. Call or email us today to find our more.


Rick Cundiff

Rick Cundiff

Content Director, Blogger

Rick Cundiff spent 15 years as a newspaper journalist before joining TJM Promos. He has been researching and writing about custom patches and other promotional products for more than 10 years. He believes in the Oxford comma, eradicating the word "utilize," and Santa Claus.