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I tried searching for some answers before posting this but since my situation is so unique my questions were never completely cleared up.

So about a year ago I was approached by a member of a fraternity to design an original t shirt graphic that would include their letters, colors, and symbols (such as a specific bird and battle axe). I created a design that incorporated all these things but digitally drew them in a way that looks completely different from their traditional logo.

Keep in mind there was never an official contract or agreement, it was a very under-the-table kind of deal. He just wanted to surprise his brothers with a dope new t-shirt design for the semester.

I ended up spending way more time on the design than I thought I would, creating something I am very proud of. The original transaction with this specific chapter got postponed due to financial issues but I'm now starting to see the potential my design has to become noticed and sold on a much larger scale. Since the fraternity is a national organization with dozens of chapters and thousands of members and alumni, I would much rather target the larger market than just one New York chapter. I've already been contacted from another member in Georgia who came across the design on the internet and wants to use it for his chapter.

Here's where I'm lost. I have no idea how to approach this issue. Am I even allowed to create an original design that uses a copyrighted name and sell it to frat members? Do I contact the national headquarters and ask them purchase the file for them to print and distribute apparel? Can I simply reach out to individual chapters by myself and see if they are interested in buying the design? Is any of this even legal?

I want the design to get as much exposure as possible but I also want do it the right way.

One source I read said that all I need to use a copy written name or symbol is permission from the organization itself? If so, does that mean the fraternity's national headquarters? The president of a certain chapter? Some random brother who asked me to do it? You can see where it gets confusing.

I greatly appreciate your time and advice For specific names and details you can contact me directly at alexnyeart@gmail.com

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Really think this is a question for a copyright attorney. –  Scott May 1 at 22:16
    
Personally, I think it depends on the art. If you want to re-use elements from the fraternities logo, you need permission. But, if it is your custom art and not immediately recognizable as a logo, it is your intellectual property and you can do what you like with it. - Basically I think it's subjective based on what you drew. –  Rsiel May 9 at 17:25

2 Answers 2

Since you and the client never signed a contract, you own copyright and intellectual property rights to your work; that's an easy one.

The more complex issue is around using a new artistic version of the fraternity's logo. If their logo is trademarked or is protected under copyright as it likely is, your version of their logo could be considered a derivative work.

Working directly with the fraternities national office, would probably be the right place to start. You might ask to speak to someone in their licensing or merchandising department to see if you could get permission to sell the tshirt to member fraternities who are interested in buying your design printed on a tshirt.

Here's an link to an article you might find useful "3 Common Questions about T-Shirt Design & Copyright Law Answered" to get more clarification on some of the options available to you.

At the end of the day working directly with the fraternity will be better for you than trying to operate without getting permission, especially if your t-shirt design becomes popular.

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Well, I'm not certain on US copyright law surrounding the trademarks of incorporated societies, however, whether or not a right exists you may consider the local chapter an agent with the authority to release such rights to you. This is called the Law of Agency.

The Law of Agency governs the rights of a person, deemed an agent, to act on behalf of another person or organisation. If the fraternity has granted authority to, let's say the President of the local chapter, that person may release the rights for you to use the protected imagery in your work. In fact, for you to be covered you don't even have to confirm such an agency exists, it would simply have to be reasonable for you to expect that this person is acting as an authorised agent.

Unfortunately in this case, it doesn't sound from your description that this guy who is surprising his frat brothers is acting with the authority of the organisation, and it probably isn't reasonable to assume that any agency exists. I'm sorry to say, you'll have to dig deeper to find someone who can give you permission. In saying that, if you were to contact the national headquarters and explain the situation, you might get some interest and they could either buy the design from you or be a great source to sell through... although more likely that they would want to buy it from you in order to keep control over their brand.

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