Over the past several years I’ve talked with fellow chapter leaders who have designed t-shirts or banners for their club. Each time I’ve heard the same complaint – “all my ideas keep getting turned down because of copyright issues!” Yes, it’s a thing and if you don’t know about it yet, you will. What we think should be an easy task – using university images on our chapter t-shirts, banners or websites – is complicated by the university’s rules and restrictions for their copy-written logos. In this post I’ll share some case studies and give you my recommendations for how to stay out of trouble.

Example 1 – A Slam T-Shirt for an Out-of-State Alumni Chapter

The chapter had created a sign for a game where their university, which was out of state, came to their state and played an in-state school. The sign was clever – it read:

I’m not a <logo of in-state school #1> fan

I’m not a  <logo of in-state school #2> fan

I am a proud <state name> <logo of their university>

They wanted to make this into a t-shirt and sell it as a fundraiser. Their chapter coordinator referred them to a printing company that printed shirts for the university. Immediately, they were informed that they could not use the logos of the other schools because it violated copyrights. Why, they asked, could they use it on the sign without a problem? Because the sign was not being sold or promoting items that would be sold. That was an ok use for a sign at a game but if the shirts were going to be sold they either had to 1) use something other than the logos or 2) give the shirts away. This derailed their design for a few weeks while they went away to figure out an alternate plan. I’ll spare you the iterations of the designs they went through but suffice it to say they loved the sign and ultimately opted to keep similar language but instead of showing the in-state school logos they used the cities in which the schools were located and printed them in each school’s primary color (garnet and orange). It was still clever and got the point across.

The finished product!

Recommendations for using university images on printed merchandise:

  • Assume up front that you won’t be able to use most of the images from any university – even your own – on any items you plan to sell. This includes:
    • images such as the Florida gator logo, the interlocking NC (UNC logo) or the FSU spear
    • slogans or nicknames such as Tar Heels, Seminoles and even phrases like “Fear the Spear” or my favorite “Let’s go Peay!”
    • any material changes to the university’s trademarked images such as someone impaled on a spear or the school’s mascot wearing a crown (if it doesn’t already wear one)
    • school seals, prominent buildings, or other landmarks that are easily associated with the school such as UNC’s Old Well or FSU’s Unconquered statue
  • Scale your designs down (way down) to include the bare minimum needed to get your point across. For example instead of a shirt that uses the UNC and Duke logos to depict the rivalry, just use the text “Beat Duke.”
  • Work with your alumni chapter coordinator to approve the design before sending it to the printer. Many times, the print shop will also point out any issues but don’t assume they always will.
  • Get approval in writing from the university for any images and logos that you may use. Make sure you understand the conditions of using them on printed material before printing or publishing.
  • If in doubt, get an attorney’s opinion.

Example #2 – Posting Photos and Images to Your Chapter Website

A club leader was scanning the internet for some pictures to use for her upcoming paid event. Using Google, she found some images that were specific to the kind of event she was hosting.  She finished her content and published it. A few days later she and the university received a cease and desist letter from an attorney asking her to remove the pictures or pay for their use. Ultimately, the University apologized on her behalf, took down the images immediately and gave our group a lesson on what not to do in the future. In addition, the club coordinators created a gallery of safe, approved images we could use for our website.

Pro tip: club coordinators, if you’re reading this don’t forget to add a 5 min “don’ts and be carefuls” talk on this topic in your next training with chapter leaders and volunteers. 

Make it a habit of taking pictures at all your club events. This is from our chapter’s game watch.

Recommendations for using images on your school’s website:

  • Use legal images only. Don’t pull images randomly off the internet. Ever. There are some great websites with free images such as Pixabay where you can download high quality images for free and without attribution. There are other sites that scan the web for free images, such as Pexels and StockUp, and present them to you based on your search.
  • Provide an attribution if in doubt. Here’s the format:
    • Title of the photo (if provided) displayed below the image
    • Source link to where the image was found
    • Author of the photo. Link the author page.
    • License with link (for example, Creative Commons CCo)
  • Take and share your own pictures. Make it a habit of taking pictures at all your club events (here’s my post on Tips for Great Photographs At Your Alumni Events). Use these on your social media and websites. No attribution needed cause they’re YOURS!
  • Ask your University to create a catalog of pictures and images that are safe to use. They can build this into your alumni engagement tools or create a Flickr page or DropBox account where they can share images with you.
  • Create your own images and memes. There are some great tools out there like Picmonkey or BeFunky that not only allow you to edit your images but they also contain templates to give you a jump start on graphics. Apps like Prisma (now subscription-based – bummer) can help you transform your pictures into cartoons or crazy imaginative works of art that are fun to share.
Rather than get an image off the web, create your own graphics using tools like PicMonkey or BeFunky to share on your website or social media. This is an example of a graphic created for a fall family event created from a PicMonkey template.

Don’t let all this talk of trademark infringement and copyright violations scare you.  You can do this! Just incorporate my recommendations into what you’re doing and, as always, check in with your chapter coordinator and you should be good to go when using images.


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