Home US The Freewheeling, Copyright-Infringing World of Custom-Printed Tees

The Freewheeling, Copyright-Infringing World of Custom-Printed Tees

The Freewheeling, Copyright-Infringing World of Custom-Printed Tees 1

In 2017, a three-person Austin-based production and management company called Exurbia Films assumed rights management for the 1974 cult horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

“My job was to take us into Chainsaw 2.0,” says Pat Cassidy, a producer and agent with Exurbia. “The original guys did a great job managing the rights but aren’t from the internet generation. They didn’t have a Facebook.”

Exurbia had an eye to develop the franchise and in 2018 struck deals for a TV series and several movies based on the original film, all in development with Legendary Pictures. It is also developing Texas Chainsaw Massacre graphic novels, barbecue sauce, and experiential products such as escape rooms and haunted houses.

Exurbia’s other job proved far more difficult: administering Chainsaw trademarks and copyrights, including the film’s title, images, and the rights to its iconic villain, Leatherface.

Industry veteran David Imhoff, who has brokered Chainsaw licensing deals on behalf of the film’s writer, Kim Henkel, and others since the 1990s, told Cassidy and another Exurbia agent, Daniel Sahad, to be prepared for a flood of counterfeit items. “It’s a sign you’re popular,” Imhoff says in an interview.

Imhoff pointed Exurbia to ecommerce giants such as Etsy, eBay, and Amazon, where independent merchants hawked unauthorized Chainsaw items. Brands must enforce their trademarks, so Sahad dedicated much of his time to a task that larger agencies usually delegate to legal teams: finding and reporting knockoffs. Exurbia has filed more than 50 notices with eBay, more than 75 with Amazon, and more than 500 with Etsy, asking the sites to remove items that violated Chainsaw trademarks. The sites removed infringing items within a week or so; but if another bogus design appeared, Exurbia had to find it, document it, and file another notice.

Imhoff also alerted Cassidy and Sahad to a less familiar name: an Australian company called Redbubble, where he had filed occasional infringement notices on Chainsaw’s behalf starting in 2013. Over time, the problem grew worse: Sahad sent 649 takedown notices to Redbubble and its subsidiary Teepublic in 2019. The sites removed the items, but new ones appeared.

Then, in August, with Halloween approaching—the Christmas season for horror retail—friends texted Cassidy, telling him they’d seen a wave of new Chainsaw designs for sale online, mainly marketed through Facebook and Instagram ads.

One ad led Cassidy to a website called Dzeetee.com, which he traced to a company he’d never heard of, TeeChip. He traced more ads to other websites selling unlicensed Chainsaw items, also linked to TeeChip. Within weeks, Cassidy says, he’d discovered several similar companies, each supporting dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of stores. Posts and ads from Facebook groups linked to these companies were marketing knockoff Chainsaw merch.

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Cassidy was stunned. “It was way bigger than we thought,” he says. “These weren’t just 10 sites. There were a thousand of them.” (Cassidy and the author have been friends for 20 years.)

Exurbia had stumbled on what could be roughly described as the “Napster of Things.”

A New, Web-Enabled Industry

Companies like TeeChip are known as print-on-demand shops. They allow users to upload and market designs; when a customer places an order—say, for a T-shirt—the company arranges the printing, often done in-house, and the item is shipped to the customer. The technology gives anyone with an idea and an internet connection the ability to monetize their creativity and start a global merchandising line with no overhead, no inventory, and no risk.

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