Before I get into the meat of this topic it’s necessary for a bit of a history lesson. I’ve been selling pop culture inspired t-shirts for nearly 20 years. Things have changed greatly over that time.
It used to be that some investment was needed to make a graphic t-shirt. Generally tees were printed using silk screens, and less frequently heat transfers. Either way there was some up front investment such as buying bulk heat transfers or making a run of silk screened shirts. There was enough expense in either scenario to dictate minimum runs of at least 48 pieces but usually even higher.
Along came direct to garment printing, which I will refer to as DTG from here. DTG made printing a t-shirt not much different from print on a piece of paper with an ink jet printer. And much like paper printers the trend toward higher quality and lower costs has been steady.
Because of DTG printing my website can offer thousands of designs in a large number of sizes without fear of running out of stock or being stuck with inventory that won’t sell. In fact, anyone with a digital image can offer t-shirts for sale with no upfront costs (if they outsource printing) or relatively low up front costs (if they invest in equipment and blank t-shirts).
There are tons of sites that don’t respect intellectual property that do this exact thing. The biggest that come to mind are teepublic and redbubble. They offer infinite choice and outsource the IP theft risk by having “independent artists” submit designs. These companies pay the artists a royalty, and then they take care of everything else, including search marketing. Amazon is also a major culprit of selling bootleg tees but they don’t always do the fulfillment. Etsy is another hotspot but they don’t do any fulfillment.
Recently I’ve been watching The Office on Netflix. And an obvious t-shirt idea came to me when Dwight Schrute opened his “Dwight Schrute Gym for Muscles”. I noticed that one of my vendors was selling an officially licensed shirt to Hot Topic. I inquired if I could sell it but was told it was their exclusive. It’s an ok shirt, but the more important thing is the concept than the actual design. So let’s see if Hot Topic actually has an exclusive on this shirt:
It’s unrealistic for NBCUniversal to try to police every use of their intellectual property. The expense would be massive, and some of these sellers aren’t even based in the USA which means suing them is nearly impossible or at least even more expensive.
The music industry faced a problem when Napster, Kazaa, and Limewire made file sharing so stupid simple that people quit buying music. Luckily for the music industry streaming subscriptions came along and made it easier for people to have access to the music they wanted for one low price than having to figure out how to steal files. Apparently music industry revenue has never been higher.
But you can’t stream t-shirts over the internet. And t-shirts aren’t exact copies of IP. So some designs may reference IP but to call it piracy or counterfeiting isn’t obvious.
One savior for the industry has been the “Merch by Amazon” program. Amazon has their own DTG machines and now the studios can cut out the licensee and go direct to the consumer with Amazon doing the fulfillment. The end result of this is that the IP owner might make $7 on a t-shirt versus $0.70 doing things the old way. Because of this my guess is the overall revenue for the IP owners is trending up compared to the past.
What’s brilliant for Amazon is that they aren’t the licensee. They are the platform provider and the brand has to upload designs. So Amazon doesn’t have to offer a guarantee or give quarterly forecasts or pay for pre-production and production samples.
But the brands are still missing out on all the revenue from these competing bootleg sites. The only real answer to this problem would be to allow anyone that wants a license to get one with little upfront costs. Then when you find a bootlegger having success you make it more convenient for them to do things the legit way. Reporting and administration requirements would need to be simplified as well.
The way things are now you’ve got licensees taking great financial risks and taking on administration costs to use an intellectual property that is being used by tons of online competitors for free. It befuddles me that the brands aren’t doing something to earn more of this money.