Remember Heroes? In 2008 when the TV series was in it's second season, an average of 13.1 million viewers in the U.S. alone tuned in each week, making the show a buzz topic. Down Under, I too tuned in and with the new excitment of starting up an online t-shirt store, combined with my admiration for actor Adrian Pasdar, went about creating a "Nathan Petrelli For President" design. A few weeks later, I'm wearing my Petrelli tee and we sell another to none other than Adrian Pasdar of California (!!?). The following week, GritFX received notification that the design breached NBC's intellectual property rights. (Why'd you wear it to work Adrian?!)
Two years on and the only reason I mention Heroes is for the purpose of this post. Trending topics (a word I'm borrowing from the world of twitter) are attractive to designers, yet we must be careful else we waste time. The concepts are often "hot" for a limited time and this lack of longevity means time is even more precious. Topics are often taken from current popular culture & current events - movies, TV shows, celebrity behaviour, music, and politics all become buzz topics especially during climatic moments such as movie premieres, TV show finales, elections, and even deaths. The problem however is that even if you've created the most obscure fan-based design, which doesn't use any existing logos, actor likenesses, or brand/celebrity names, you still may find yourself in breach of intellectual property rights. In the case of GritFX's Heroes design, it was the use of the name "Nathan Petrelli" in conjunction with the concept of voting him for President.
If you're using one of the two "big dogs" in the print-on-demand realm (Zazzle or Cafepress), your designs will be removed if you breach terms and upload a design that infringes upon third party intellectual property rights (such as copyright, trademark, trade dress and right of publicity), moral rights, or is defamatory. Content management teams work at keeping content which is in breach off their sites. Sighting something else that is similar to your design on their marketplace is not going to help your case, though - that shopkeeper may have obtained a license and has such rights to sell their design; or, simply, the design has yet to be 'flagged'. If you're independent, it is up to you to know what you can and cannot do - if you don't have a license to put Lady Gaga's face all over the front of a t-shirt, then I suggest you don't waste your time and the risk of a law suit.
With all that said, you need not fear all avenues of trendy threads as there are options for you to consider. This is where the fun begins...
Politicians are free targets and designers can use their likeness and quote them - so long as we don't go down the defamation path and attempt to sell t-shirts with George Bush in bed with a donkey. Some themes will become synonymous with a certain time in political history and thus may have a longer shelf life; others lose their appeal once the moment has passed. Picking which themes will have longevity is not something I could advise on - I'm a terrible gambler - but I will say that a speedy introduction of your design to the world is recommended. You want to try and get your expression of one of these themes online before the competition does. I'd also suggest purging designs when they become stale. If you want to showcase "current affairs", they should be current.
L to R: "Spill, Baby Spill" - a response to everything Sarah Palin and BP are about to say to defend offshore drilling - by Crock Tees; "This is a BIG F***ING DEAL!" - the infamous BFD Biden quote - by Melhi; "Barack and Roll" - clearance sale active as of the date of this post ($10) - by Saucewear; and "I'll Be Barack" - discontinued Obama design - by Urban Outfitter.
If politics doesn't interest you and only leaves a sour taste in your mouth, then you could consider designing for the various popular culture portals that Cafepress is responsible for. Having secured licenses with the likes of Fremantle Media for American Idol, ABC for LOST, Summit Entertainment for Twilight, Showtime for Dexter, and more, there may be a trending topic you'd love to create some designs for. Each "portal" comes with license rules that you need take into consideration before starting any kind of design. Many will restrict you from doing the obvious and reproducing show logos; using the image/likenesses of actors; and in the case of Twilight, designs cannot include an apple. For me, this adds to the fun and the reason I'd want to do designs for these topics to start with... to create a fan-inspired design that only fellow fanatics will recognise and comprehend. When it comes to that, these portals are giving designers a license to go crazy with ideas.
Should you find that a design is removed and you can't see why, I suggest asking a content management representative. Having read and re-read the LOST portal terms, I was surprised to see one of the GritFX LOST-themed designs removed and when I asked why, the forthcoming reply informed me that "Time Travel Is A Bitch" was perceived as use of profanity. Once modified, the design was approved and has since become a popular LOST design. Never hurts to ask!
While it's a joy to design for these topics, and nice to have the security of the POD license, I'd never suggest anyone focus solely on these portals. Call me cynical, but I anticipate a day when these licenses are up for renewal/negotiation, and if negotiations fail, all related designs will be removed from stores.
If you're not interested in joining Cafepress you can still do some designs for other PODS, but be careful not to be too detailed in what you include. You might find a "Namaste" design for LOST fans on a POD other than Cafepress, but this is likely to be plain text void of any graphics that are inspired by and reflect the TV series LOST - such as the Dharma logo.
Thinking that it's all too much to consider? I have a closing suggestion for you. Drop by Zazzle and take a look at their "World Famous Brands" section which showcases designs for Marvel's Iron Man 2 (as an example). It's easy to create an account with Zazzle and once you do you can start to build affiliate links to "trendy threads". All you'd need is a twitter account to share these links during peak trending moments, and you're making some pocket money.
I wonder what tomorrow's trending topic will be.... Anyone remember the balloon boy?