I love Threadless & IP rights

I love Threadless, a lot. Threadless (just in case you missed them) is a community site where people can submit designs for t-shirts and vote for them. Winning designs get produced, the winner gets $2500 and everyone else gets to buy fun, funny and creative T-shirts. 

So, Exactly how much do I love Threadless? To the right you can see a
picture of most of the Threadless t-shirts I own. There are about 50 in
that picture (taken in Amsterdam, where I live) and there are more in
Eindhoven (where I also live).

Indeed Threadless has a lot to do with why I came to work for Shapeways. What Threadless is for T-shirts, Shapeways will be for all other stuff. Which is what makes what happened to me the other day quite interesting indeed. 

A friend of mine lives in Chang Mei, Thailand and was in Amsterdam to visit his family and friends. As a present he brought me a T-shirt. He talked about markets in Chang Mei where you could get the funniest shirts for next to nothing and gave me one that combined my love of reading for my love of cool t-shirts. 

I can be an idiot at times and was so immediately after he gave it: exclaiming in short order that not only did my girlfriend have the very same shirt but that it was a Threadless shirt, making it abundantly clear to everyone that his gift was pirated. This was a complete surprise to him, and just one more incident of me ruining something by blurting out what I’m thinking. To the right you can see both t-shirts side by side, with the Threadless shirt on the left and the Thailand one on the right. You can see the shirt on Threadless here.

This incident has many far reaching and interesting implications for communities such as Threadless and Shapeways as well as the future of “peer production”, mass customization and intellectual property in general and is interesting to me for 9 reasons:

1. Usually pirated materials are bought with the buyer knowing fully
well that it is pirated, ie “look there is a Puma logo on those $10

My friend was unaware that the shirt was in fact
copyright infringement. He just saw a fun shirt that was perfect for
his t-shirt mad friend and bought it.

2. Usually it is the big brands, the recognizable brands names and logos
that are copied, indeed the element of brand recognition is the reason
why the person buys the pirated item. ie “A Louis Vuitton bag for $15,
wow, this is my chance to prentend that I own one.”

In this case the
Threadless logo does not appear anywhere on the T-shirt. This pirated
shirt stole the designers idea and used the idea and the attractiveness
of the design an sich to sell the item.

Usually copyright infringement happens precisely because a product is
expensive. “What $700 for Windows? That’s like a month’s rent. I’ll
download it instead”

Threadless T-shirts are from $5(on sale)
to $15, without shipping, so are very affordable. I’m not sure how much
he paid for the T-shirt and knowing South East Asia it might have been
cheaper, lets say between $2-$5. But, all the above price points are
very cheap and should be well within the means of an average developed
nation consumer.

4. Usually piracy happens to big “boring” companies who are refusing to abandon their old broken business models.

Threadless is a hip “new” internet business with an even “hipper” business model revolving around co-creation and community. 

Usually piracy happens to big billion dollar businesses or
multimillionaire recording artists who could cry all they want from
their private jets and personalized basketball courts but can not
really count on much sympathy from the general public. In this case the
victims were Threadless and Josh Kemble, the designer.

Although Threadless has revenues of $30,000,000 it should be able to garner more sympathy than the truly huge companies (check out how Google now returns the result to the query ‘Threadless revenue” by the way).

And Josh Kemble
who is a freelance illustrator, born in “a small speck of dirt in
California” and working on a graphic novel is someone I feel instantly
sympathetic towards. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a 24 carat gold
dome above his bed, yet, anyway. 

6. The prated Threadless
shirt example above really puts “power internet users” in a bit of a
bind. Usually the RIAA, DRM, copyright protection companies and closed
source software companies are the bad guys. Intelectual Property(IP) and copyright in general
is seen as the “old way” and a mark of evil boring companies who do
not get the internet and want to monopolize. To them downloading a movie
from the Pirate Bay can be seen as defiance in some way.

In this
example the Intellectual Property rights are represented by Josh Kemble,
who with his creativity and skill makes his money using an internet
business. Good IP protection in this case would seem to be neccessary
in order to usher in a new era on the internet whereby many more people
than is now the case could make their money directly from the net
itself. IP in this case would seem to be much more of a neccessity in
propping up the little guy rather than a tool of the large corporates.

7. Threadless makes money off of the ideas, IP and skill of Josh and
all the other contributors to Threadless. When you upload to Threadless
your IP becomes the property of Threadless(Shapeways
is different: your designs will always remain your IP when you upload
them to Shapeways
). I would assume that they strive to protect this IP
(as we strive to protect Shapeways users’ IP) but how much can an
online business do against some guys on a market in Thailand? Indeed a forum question on Threadless pointed me towards a picture gallery from the Glastonbury festival in 2007
where several pirated Threadless T-shirts where on sale(making me feel
kind of daft for writing this huge post about what I thought was a unique

8. There would seem to be a huge business
opportunity here for an online business that would effectively protect
the intellectual property rights of small businesses and freelancers

9. We need to, as Shapeways, keep listening to our community directly as to how they view their IP and want to protect it. We need to also join the IP debate with other companies, people and groups. We need to be a part of it in order to make sure that people such as Josh Kemble can protect their IP and can continue to make money online. At the same time we have to guard against companies that abuse IP legislation in order to stifle innovation. The thin line of IP is going to be challenging to walk on.     


  1. Arno Hautala

    1. I’d argue that this isn’t always the case. Not that it matters much overall, but don’t underestimate people’s ability to be blinded by the price and just think “Wow! Great deal!”

    2. Sure, for designer products, but when you get to music, movies, etc. it’s the product not the name. I’d throw T-Shirts in with those categories as well.

    3. Just as with being able to identify the product I think sometimes it has just as much to do with marketing and availability as price. You can buy an album on iTunes for $10, but there are still those who will pirate the same album because of politics and quality (Apple is a big, bad corporation, DRM, etc.).

    4. I really don’t think Threadless is a special case here. They make a product. It’s cheaper to rip off that product than create a new product. Therefore Threadless will be pirated.

    5. I take it this is an appeal to some degree of accepting piracy when it happens to big companies because they’ve already made their billions and don’t deserve any more. Questionable business practices and hanging onto old business models aside, why is it less bad to pirate a big company than it is a small company? It’s the same IP and the same ethics. With $30 million in revenue Threadless is a “big” company. The only reason you’re giving them more sympathy is because they’ve got that hip, underdog feel and the RIAA sues it’s customers. Ignoring the public relations they’re both companies with corporate interests who’ve made different decisions on how to protect their IP.

    6. Rationalizing because it’s a single person being ripped off versus a big company isn’t very sensible. It’s still the same IP regardless of the size of the corporate entity. If IP is respected for the little guy, they’ll eventually turn into the large corporate. Big companies didn’t just spring forth fully incorporated. They fought against the same hardships that face the current little guy and it’s just as ethical to protect the big and little interests.

    7. I think this is inline with what I wrote above about Threadless not being a special case. In general this is probably far more widespread than you think. Shapeways and Threadless treat IP differently, but both respect it.

    8. This sounds like you’re arguing for a big entity to hammer down on piracy the way the RIAA has been. That’s fine as long as it’s done appropriately. The RIAA is vilified not because they’re protecting their IP, but because they’re hanging onto an expired business model and unethically and illegally pursuing those who are infringing their IP.

    9. Some would argue that as Shapeways leaves the IP in the hands of the designers, the responsibility to protect that IP is also left with the designer. If Shapeways wants to offer help in protecting the rights of their users, that’s fine too.

    Overall, my main gripe is the special treatment given to the little guy. I suppose this is a backlash to the perception that big companies currently have an unfair upper hand, which may be true, but they shouldn’t loose any sympathy just because they’ve been around longer and have been really good in their field. If Threadless made $30 billion in revenue and sued people would that automatically mean that they don’t deserve any IP respect because they have more IP?

  2. Arno Hautala

    All that said, I don’t think I’ve ever been to the Threadless site before and I’m headed there now.

  3. bvicarious

    What’s strange is that sometimes the knock-offs are actually better in quality than the original. Mindows Zista hasn’t crashed on me in months!

    1. Joris


      You should totally check out my pirated copy of firefox, it has plug ins and everything.


    2. bvicarious

      Joris, Mindows doesn’t run software. It’s just a single screen with the Shapeways website preloaded onto it.

    3. Joris Peels

      LOL, LOL, and I’m actually laughing out loud, its not one of those out of habit LOLs.

  4. Joris


    Good points all. I didn’t mean to imply that the little guy should get special treatment. I meant to say that many more would be sympathetic to him(as I am). If a company is big it got big by being good at something, and their IP should be protected also. I am not biased against large companies per se. I just personally have an issue with IP being used to stifle innovation rather than promote it. Should someone’s IP rights always be absolute? Or can you use as well as abuse these rights? They were initially meant to foster innovation and progress but now?

    I get your product idea, I guess if you look at it this way my post could have been a lot shorter, LOL.

    With 8. I mean that if someone sold IP rights protection as a service: specially for internet freelancers and SMB’s I think they would do very well. I would not recommend a RIAA-like approach, indeed that would seem to be counterproductive.

  5. Arno Hautala

    Yeah, I think that’s pretty much it.

    I do think you can abuse IP rights. Look at the current state of the US Patent system (not sure how it is in other countries). You have companies which buy up patent catalogs and then sit on them until an appetizing case of infringement comes along. Now, I don’t want to say that you HAVE to use your IP in order to keep it protected, but patent trolls sure don’t “foster innovation”. Designers and developers deserve the right to protect their creations, otherwise the only incentive to create would be the act of expression. That’s all well and good, but you still deserve the right to charge for and protect your work.

    Specifically as it relates to patents, I think the USPTO has been rather lenient in issuing overly broad patents.

    1. joris


      exactly, thats where my worry comes from. In the years to come everyone should be able to make their very own mobile phone (or internet communication device, ICD or whatever it will be called by then), customize it however they want to. You could make exactly the phone you wanted to or if you were good at it, start up your own business of one.

      You could use components suppliers, companies that assemble, services like Shapeways, designs and help from other internet users and create something that is superior in utility rather than perceived utility. Something that works better for you rather than something that marketing tells you is better for you. A network of networks of people could work together via the internet to together usher in the triumph of functionality.

      But, in actual fact you could not do this because you would not have access to key patents or components. So in that case the technology and services would be there but you would not be able to do it. But, where is the balance between “fair use” and IP rights? The balance between rewarding someone for their innovation and fostering innovation as a whole?

  6. Arno Hautala

    It’s in the homebrew “restrictions” that you really start to run across the line of what should be allowed. Should an individual or another company be allowed to reproduce any component? If I crack a bumper and want to replace it with one I produce from a mold taken from the original before it cracked, is that infringement? What if it’s a custom design where only the connections are taken from the original? What about furniture? What about more complicate car parts? What if I want to sell them?

    This gets far easier with open source licenses (including hardware these days). The tricky part in my mind is if consumer rights regarding purchased goods extend to reproducing those goods. Altering them for personal use seems to be a given, but reproducing and sharing is an area for debate. “Good Copy Bad Copy” is a good documentary on this specifically as it applies to music, but the ideas are typically relevant to other fields.

    As rapid prototyping gets more mainstream and available I expect to see these issues debated more and more. Heh, wait ’til we get Napster for objects.

    1. joris

      I agree completely, I want to get in on that debate, jumpstart it if we can so that when that future comes a lot of people will be ready for it.

      Napster was a good example of technology and user needs being ahead of the legal structures and licensing deals. What is more relevant is to have an Itunes for objects.

      So to use the technology, meet peoples needs as well as have structures in place to in a fair way compensate rights owners.

      I’d like to think that we already have an Itunes for objects and that this is Shapeways.

  7. Janis

    I think a large part of reacting differently to this than to the Vuitton example is not that money is being stolen, but CREDIT is being stolen. That is not recognized as a significant chunk of the offense nearly often enough, especially in online communities like those that revolve around these net-based creation sites like Threadless where the community aspect is a huge part of the overall creative structure.

    In a way, it reminds me of fanfiction — hold on I’m serious. If you write fanfiction about Buffy or whatever, you aren’t making anyone think that you wrote it. Everyone in the whole universe knows that Joss Whedon did that, and no one is stealing credit from him by writing some story about his characters. In a way, the “ripoff” spreads the currency around even more — because of someone’s weird little Buffy story, a few more people know about some guy named Whedon and what he did.

    If a less well-known person’s books are ripped off, the recognition and social currency due to that person for having come up with their idea is erased or blocked. A few less people will know what they did instead of a few more. They have been obscured for having come up with something clever and nice, instead of gaining the social recognition that they indeed deserve for coming up with something clever and nice.

    We really do have to find a vocabulary to talk about this that isn’t so centered on monetary damage only. People can only try to wangle this whole concept into who has money taken away, or who makes money from someone else’s idea, and it’s the wrong way to conceptualize it. The thing that is happening is that people are not gaining the social currency they deserve because of their clever ideas, and instead of more people being made aware of what they did, recognition for their ideas is being denied them.

    In the case of a Vuitton handbag, money is being lost (although I’d state that anyone who blows $15 on a knockoff in TJ isn’t going to be buying the real thing anyhow, so it still only increases brand recognition; perhaps illegal music or movie downloads are a better example). In those cases, no one will ever be led to believe that “Another One Bites the Dust” was written and performed by my really cool garage band, even if I package it up and rip it off that way.

    In the case of the t-shirt or another small business thing like that, both money AND credit are being stolen. If I’m a small garage band and I rip off another small garage band, I’m denting their finances AND their recognition. There’s nothing in the world that can dent Star Trek’s brand recognition.

    1. joris


      I hadn’t considered that but the idea of credit, kudos, originality being stolen is also relevant.

      I think in some cases an initial breach of IP rights can be ultimately beneficial to the company but in most cases this kudos-loss element will damage the company.

      A trekkie that without the propper permissions makes his own Star Trek outfit might help extend and promote the brand itself while costing them money in the short term. But, generally I totally agree, for small brands this could hurt them a lot. Good point.

    2. Janis

      Definitely relevant — especially since credit is all a startup artist has. Without that, they wouldn’t be able to move on to a larger brand even if they wanted to. You can’t get funding to expand if, thanks to someone else ripping you off and claiming your ideas as theirs, the VCs have never heard of you. You can’t even repair the damage if you are not financially able to sue them. It all makes coming up with something clever actually harmful to you and beneficial to a (hypothetical) enemy. It reverses the expected reward-for-innovation arrow.

      And this is all added to the fact that Threadless (and Shapeways, from what I’ve seen) is partly social and bills itself as a community, not an impersonal business, with things like mentoring and encouragement and stuff like that. The social stuff is going to matter more in an atmosphere like that …

  8. Janis

    BTW, sorry to be so blathery and pedantic in my first post on the blog. :-) Classic noob mistake, I guess …

    1. joris

      I can be pedantic and blathery so you will get no criticism from me.

  9. Arno Hautala

    Perhaps, though I don’t know that Buffy (or any other) fanfic ever purports to steal credit from the original author. If it did, it wouldn’t be fanfic.

    I’d also argue that the plagiarism in your lesser known author example is just as, if not more, likely to bring more awareness to the original author. The reader may be more interested in the topic or talk about the idea and discover the original.

    Social currency is an interesting way to discuss it, but I doubt many would be okay with the idea that their work was being pirated as long as it included a label stating “Knockoff of the fabulous work created by: X”.

    Even if nothing can dent Star Trek’s brand ( I’d say that Star Trek itself has often hurt it’s own brand ;-) ) does it warrant any more or less protection than the garage band? Star Wreck is a great example that moves beyond fanfic (The Pirkinning is a feature length film) and undeniably improves the Star Trek brand. What if a small garage band group has a song that gets sampled by some other garage band that goes on to become a world sensation. The first band is likely improved as well as blocked, though the method is metaphorically the same in both cases.

    In the end, these are all bad metaphors I think. Comparing copyright infringement of music to knock-off hand bags isn’t perfect and crosses a lot of different issues. I think the current state of copyrights, trademarks, patents, etc is a good start that has gone horribly wrong.

    1. Joris


      Many people are OK with their work being pirated, that is the basis for the Creative Commons Attribution license.

      As someone that thinks in metaphors I would, with reluctance, have to agree. Every case is different but is there some kind of golden rule for IP that can be distilled? I find myself thinking in outcomes and “is it fair”, but what would work for everyone?

    2. Arno Hautala

      I don’t think there is a golden rule. I do think you can get a general law that covers most cases and I think that law would be covered by generic property laws.

      I could be missing something, but I think the main problems today are over generic patents (which shouldn’t have been issued in the first place), overextended copyright terms (Jack Valenti actually wants “forever minus a day”), and illegal enforcement of copyright (Has the RIAA *won* any cases? Or just settlements?).

      The current state isn’t all that bad. It’s the execution that needs work.

    3. Janis

      Perhaps, though I don’t know that Buffy (or any other) fanfic ever purports to steal credit from the original author. If it did, it wouldn’t be fanfic.

      That’s what I mean — it doesn’t attempt to, and even if it did, it couldn’t. For smaller brands, it is entirely possible to rip them off shamelessly, and then trumpet the result with, “Hey, everybody, look at this great thing that I made! Me me me!” This is a whole `nother dimension of damage.

      That’s where I was going with the lesser-known-author example. It is quite possible to render the originator of a smaller brand invisible by ripping them off because they just do not have the resources to market themselves in a way that would offset the harm. You *can* do the me-me-me thing with a smaller brand. This ends up short-circuiting the natural human (possibly primate) instinct that doing something clever or interesting will gain you social status. In the case of ripping off a smaller brand, it will actually subtract from the originator’s status as the ripper-off obscures them for their own benefit.

      Larger brands may be harmed financially from a ripoff (although again not always; a Vuitton ripoff isn’t really reaching the original company’s target), but they are not harmed socially. Smaller brands are harmed both ways.

      And this all gets very confusing once the brand has a corporate face on it instead of a human one. Buffy wears Whedon’s face. At this point, Disney wears no single face, unless it’s the mouse.

      There seems to be a nonlinearity in the whole thing, where “reputation” or “brand” is harmed under a threshold level of recognition by ripoffs and enhanced or at least not harmed above that level. This is independent of the financial axis.

    4. Arno Hautala

      *Larger brands may be harmed financially from a ripoff (although again not always; a Vuitton ripoff isn’t really reaching the original company’s target), but they are not harmed socially. Smaller brands are harmed both ways.*

      Actually, I’d argue that larger brands are harmed more socially than financially. And that social harm translates into financial harm. Knock-offs would seem to cheapen the brand, especially if the knock-off is high enough quality to appear to be a low quality original. A low quality knock-off is probably equally likely to be dismissed as a knock-off or questioned as to why the producer allows it to exist. I think both cheapen the brand overall.

      Smaller brands may be proportionally harmed more, but I don’t think the amount of harm should have any bearing on the legality of the act. Perhaps on the penalty.

    5. Janis

      *Social currency is an interesting way to discuss it, but I doubt many would be okay with the idea that their work was being pirated as long as it included a label stating “Knockoff of the fabulous work created by: X”.*

      More would be okay with it, as long as it was knocked off by people who were also okay with being knocked off. At least, that’s how it seems to settle out most times when I’ve seen it. Sort of a socially agreed-upon instance of the GPL, I guess.

      With the garage band example, it would depend on the behavior of the second band. If they ripped the first band off and erased any information that would permit their audience to trace their way back to the originator of the sampled song, then the first band is only damaged by the ripoff. If they ripped off the first band and said to their listeners, “If you liked that song, then go to this other band over here where you’ll find the sampled song and lots more,” then that would be a different matter. If the first band released their music and stated that they didn’t mind ripoffs without credit, or ripoffs with credit, that would also add another variable.

      Actually, it’s all starting to sound a great deal like a sort of GPL/open-source thing, I suspect.

      It’s probably also something like an endangered-species-act thing, where animals in a particularly precarious position just can’t be hunted on the same terms as more numerous ones. Shoot five deer and there’s lots more. Shoot five cheetahs, and it’s a much bigger problem. Large brands and small brands just can’t be treated the same, anymore than possums and snow leopards can be subject to the same trapping regulations.

    6. Arno Hautala

      *With the garage band example, it would depend on the behavior of the second band.*

      I’d say it depends more on how the first band cares to react to the behavior of the second band. Whether the second credits the first or not, the first should have the option to control their work. They may decide to be grateful for the credit and move on. They may decide that credit isn’t enough; that only they should perform the work, credited or not. Additional variables indeed. This is why it gets so tricky to generate a catch all law that isn’t so generic it can’t be appropriately interpreted.

      * It’s probably also something like an endangered-species-act thing*

      I get your meaning, which I disagree with; I don’t think that the popularity or size of the infringed should matter. I suppose I’m Vegan when it comes to property rights. ;-)

  10. T. Shawn Johnson

    What bothers me about all this, is that Joris couldn’t come up with an even 10 points.



    1. joris

      LOL, I had more but got rid of them, was actually quite surprised that people got through most of the post

    2. T. Shawn Johnson

      Don’t worry. I read your posts entirely. Actually I read most long posts entirely. I feel it’s the least I can do, since I’m notorious for writing long posts.


    3. joris

      Maybe you’ve discovered a niche: The long blog.

      No more short, to the point, well structured, informative blog posts but rather a longwinded circuitous unclear and above all very long series of mini-novellas. An anti-twitter. Call it trumpet.

  11. Chris

    Same story here in London. There’s a t-shirt vendor in Brick Lane Markets selling blatant rip-offs (and poorly executed ones at that) of some of Threadless’ most iconic shirts. The only way to stop this kind of thing is not to buy their crap and support the awesomely talented artists who create these designs.

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