Mormon T-shirt Kitsch

August 8, 2005 | 36 comments
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I am sure most of you are familiar with the types of “Mormon t-shirts” like these, these, these and these. To me, they are beyond kitschy and have entered the realm of horribly tacky. What bothers me most is how they use the hard and well-built brand recognition of other companies to sell themselves. In the basic legal training I received every year at Old Navy, we learned that our designs needed to be at least 10% different from the original “inspiration” to avoid any “trouble” (not that most designers like to “knock-off” but many of the business-minded people are looking for a “quick buck”). This 10% is obviously hard to calculate, so what it really came down to was, no one should be able to look at a product and identify the company that may have inspired the piece. Now I am hoping that these “Mormon t-shirts” fall into some legal loophole, because of that whole 12th Article of Faith thing, but they still bother me. I know how hard designers and graphic artists work to create original logos and how hard the merchandisers work to develop the brand recognition of that logo. To me, using the hard work of others to sell a tacky “Mormon t-shirt” is just bad form.

Here is a t-shirt and another one which some might find controversial, but at least you have to appreciate their originality.

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36 Responses to Mormon T-shirt Kitsch

  1. lyle stamps on August 8, 2005 at 10:06 am

    Carrie:

    Funny you mention how “they” “use the hard and well-built brand recognition of other companies to sell themselves.” I remember thinking the same thing everytime I saw an old navy t-shirt or TV ad. I don’t know where they grabbed the 10% rule they told you about; but if someone sued Old Navy over these ads/shirts, which are clearly designed so that people “look at a product and identify the company that may have inspired the piece.” I admit I’m confused by your piece; or at least the Old Navy aspect of it. Glass Houses, rocks, all that, ya know?

    BTW: Old Navy and these “mormon” shirts are probably all protected by the concept of “parody.” Ever wonder how Weird Al sang hit songs, and basically only changed the lyrics? Well…because it was parody, which is legally protected w/o any need to appeal to anyone’s articles of faith.

  2. danithew on August 8, 2005 at 10:23 am

    A few people in the ‘Nacle have created their own t-shirt designs using CafePress or Zazzle.com. But I’m not sure if these t-shirts have had all that much of a Mormon component in the design. And I haven’t actually seen anyone wearing one yet.

  3. Susan M on August 8, 2005 at 10:36 am

    Hahaha. Those shirts are hilarious. The controversial ones, I mean.

    Do you work for Old Navy still, Carrie? I have a friend who worked there until the recent relocation of the company.

  4. Rusty on August 8, 2005 at 10:36 am

    As one who designs and maintains logos and other designs I’m not so bothered by their copying logos/brands as I am of just how stupid these designs are. What lame ideas. I’m all for copying as long as it works, but these are beyond stupid.

    Lyle,
    I don’t think these fall under parody. But you should ask a copyright attorney.

  5. Geoff J on August 8, 2005 at 10:37 am

    Lyle,

    I’m pretty sure Weird Al pays royalties to the original songwriter for every parody song he releases.

  6. danithew on August 8, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Warning: shameless self-promotion.

    Here are three t-shirt designs I created with Zazzle.com just a few weeks ago. Obviously there isn’t anything Mormon about them.

    I have considered doing something kind of colorful design that would incorporate the words of a Book of Mormon verse — but I haven’t yet figured out the technique or approach that I would want to use. I suppose it would be fairly easy to create a very colorful box to go around the words — but that is still a pretty simplistic approach to that kind of thing. I think more original things could be done. For example I love what Islamic artists have done with Qur’anic verses and Islamic sayings. I feel they manage to bring design, color and geometric elements into their celebration of their scriptures without losing respect for the sacredness of what they are working with.

  7. Todd Lundell on August 8, 2005 at 10:52 am

    The “I can’t, I’m Mormon” T-shirt was featured on SNL’s Weekend update a while back. Something about a BYU co-ed saying “I can’t, I’m Mormon” and Kobe Bryant responding “oh yes, you can, I’m Kobe.” It was bad, but funny.

    I’m still looking for the right occasion to buy and wear that big pimpin t-shirt. It’s hilarious.

  8. Brother Joseph on August 8, 2005 at 11:10 am

    lyle,

    According to Wierd Al’s website:

    “Al does get permission from the original writers of the songs that he parodies. While the law supports his ability to parody without permission, he feels it’s important to maintain the relationships that he’s built with artists and writers over the years. Plus, Al wants to make sure that he gets his songwriter credit (as writer of new lyrics) as well as his rightful share of the royalties.”

    http://www.weirdal.com/faq.htm

  9. Vicki on August 8, 2005 at 11:16 am

    I can’t find a link in a quick search but there are also “Old Nauvoo” shirts available at at least one store in Nauvoo. Right next to some angel swish ones. Yuck.

  10. lyle stamps on August 8, 2005 at 11:20 am

    re: Weird Al. He _chooses_ to get permission and share his profits. He isn’t legally required to. I respect his cooperative model.

    My knowledge re: Parody is limited to taking 1 copyright class in lawschool. It’s a broad concept. For example, the “Angel Swoosh” T-shirts. If Nike sued, the Angel swoosh folks would have to argue they are making fun of nike. This isn’t readily apparent, but it could be argued. More likely, it was inspired by Pres. Kimball’s “Just do it” statement, which would probably not be a good argument for them to make; as then they would just be co-opting Nike’s brand image associated with their “just do it” statement. While Kimball came first, the logo/statement association came latter.

  11. obi-wan on August 8, 2005 at 11:44 am

    Old Navy and these “mormon” shirts are probably all protected by the concept of “parody.” Ever wonder how Weird Al sang hit songs, and basically only changed the lyrics? Well…because it was parody, which is legally protected w/o any need to appeal to anyone’s articles of faith.

    Lyle is a little confused here, on several fronts. Carrie has pointed out what is largely a trademark problem. Lyle’s Weird Al example is a copyright question. In copyright, parody is a function of fair use. Little of Al’s material qualifies for the copyight parody exception, as most of it would likely be classified as satire rather than parody (one of the reasons Al always takes a license).

    Trademark law has its own parody exception, but it is much narrower and less well defined than that in copyright. Unlike copyright, where the question is whether there was substantial copying, the question in trademark is largely whether there is a substantial likelihood of consumer confusion, that is, whether a consumer might be confused into thinking that the imitations are associated with the manufacturer of the original mark. Some of the marks on these shirts are sufficiently similar to the original manufacturer logos that I suspect they would be deemed confusing.

    There is also a separate test for famous marks (which all of these probably are), called dilution, which asks whether the imitation “blurs” the distinctiveness of the original mark, that is, whether it would distract consumers from their association with the original mark. The imitations probably infringe on those grounds, as well.

    There may also be separate claims in some states for unfair competition and/or unjust enrichment — this is the formal version of Carrie’s intuition that a business should not profit off the effort of another, or as the cases put it, “reap where you have not sown.”

    In other words, at some point when they get noticed, these T-shirt manufacturers will almost certainly get shut down.

    Caveats: trademark and copyright do overlap sometimes, but the distinction here is fairly clear. And there is no “10% rule,” it sounds like somebody just made that up.

  12. Katie on August 8, 2005 at 11:48 am

    Todd, the joke was actually a bit more subversive, playing on Kobe’s rape accusation. Tina said, “the shirts say ‘I can’t I’m Mormon…Kobe Bryant said, ‘You will, I’m Kobe.”

    Still tacky, still funny.

  13. Katie on August 8, 2005 at 11:49 am

    Todd, the joke was actually a bit more subversive, playing on Kobe’s rape accusation. Tina said, “the shirts say ‘I can’t I’m Mormon…Kobe Bryant said, ‘You will, I’m Kobe.”

    Still tacky, still funny.

  14. lyle stamps on August 8, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    As just a 1st year padawan (jedi?); I’m always willing to accept correction master. :)

    Perhaps you would care to address the Old Navy ads also? It seems like they are subject to attack…

  15. Carrie Lundell on August 8, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    Lyle,

    “I admit I’m confused by your piece; or at least the Old Navy aspect of it. Glass Houses, rocks, all that, ya know?”

    When I worked at Old Navy three years ago, I was definitely not in charge or even involved in any of their advertising, or even 1% of their t-shirt designs. I only mentioned their name as a place where I learned a few clothing legalities. If you find that hypocritical, speak to the president of the company.

    Now if you have a problem with a piece of clothing you found in Old Navy that is from at least two years ago and falls into the “baby girls woven” category, then I would be happy to speak to you about it. I cannot take credit or blame for Old Navy’s business ethics, only for how I acted when I worked there.

    This post is not about Old Navy, it’s about Mormon T-shirts.

  16. William Morris on August 8, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Dani:

    Nice designs. I love the ‘blognitive dissonance’ concept coupled with your art.

  17. obi-wan on August 8, 2005 at 1:41 pm

    As just a 1st year padawan (jedi?); I’m always willing to accept correction master.

    Yes, kids, these trademark attorneys are trained professionals, so don’t try this at home!

    Perhaps you would care to address the Old Navy ads also? It seems like they are subject to attack…

    Sorry, I don’t think I’m familiar with the ads in question. Which may mean that I need to get out more. Or it may mean that Old Navy has never been a client . . .

  18. Ivan Wolfe on August 8, 2005 at 3:04 pm

    obi-wan-

    you say ” Little of Al’s material qualifies for the copyight parody exception” – but the reason he says the courts support is because of 2 Live Crew which got a parody exception for their cover of “Pretty Woman” – that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. I don’t see how Weird Al is significantly different (other than being much less crude).

    [I'm asking for enlightenment, not challanging you.]

  19. Geoff J on August 8, 2005 at 5:51 pm

    Lyle: Weird Al. He _chooses_ to get permission and share his profits. He isn’t legally required to. I respect his cooperative model.

    Actually I think he chooses to get permission, but he would have to pay songwriting royalties whether he got permission or not. Songs are protected and no one can use your music without paying you for it. He writes new lyrics but he openly uses the music as is.

  20. lyle on August 8, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    Carrie: Throwing rocks at Mormon Tees, when Old Navy does TV ads that rip off other TV series’…is in poor taste. I’m not attacking what you did personally, but using them as an example…doesn’t seem to fit well, that’s all.

    Of course, for all I know…they got permission from the Brady Bunch IP owner’s to do that ad; and for all we know, the Swoop Angel T-Shirts got permission from Nike too.

  21. Carrie Lundell on August 8, 2005 at 6:31 pm

    All I am saying is that I never used them as an example of anything.

  22. Vince Jones on August 8, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    Just for clarification – to claim you are protected from copyright/trademark infringement you have to be parodying the original piece/organisation with your creation. If you are merely using a recognisable creation to your own humotoues ends for an unrelated third party then you are not covered. Relates to a case with Disney and Mickey Mouse as I recall.

  23. A. Greenwood on August 8, 2005 at 6:37 pm

    “To me, they are beyond kitschy and have entered the realm of horribly tacky.”

    No, just kitschy.

  24. Mark N. on August 8, 2005 at 6:57 pm

    I’m pretty sure Weird Al pays royalties to the original songwriter for every parody song he releases.

    And unless I’m mistaken, Weird Al gets permission from the artists whose songs he parodies (parodizes?). I can recall Weird Al complaining about The Artist Formerly And Once Again Known As Prince, stating that he had no sense of humor, because he wouldn’t give Al permission to do one of his songs.

  25. Joshua Aikens on August 8, 2005 at 7:40 pm

    Get off her back, she never said Old Navy was above reproach,

    I always thought it went “People in glass houses shouldn’t walk around in their underwear.”

  26. Aimee Roo on August 8, 2005 at 10:26 pm

    well, as someone who has a lds themed cafepress shop, i can tell you that i tried very hard to make sure that my shirts didn’t look like lds shirts. i wanted them to look like just a fun shirt, with an lds theme. i was tired of all the tacky, ugly, lds shirts that are sold at deseret book. they aren’t anything that anyone i know would wear. i am not saying mine are, although i hope they are, but at least they are all original and all of my own designing.

    as an artist it is frustrating to see people copy designs. it seems dishonest, uncreative, and above all else, not very cool. i get the feeling that people who do this kind of stuff are truly in it just for the money, and aren’t really artists at all. of course, parody is a little different, but i don’t really think that these kinds of lds shirts based on brand logos are really a parody, as they aren’t being funny, just capitalizing on someone else’s great design.

  27. JKS on August 8, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    “I am sure most of you are familiar with the types of “Mormon t-shirts” like these, these, these and these. ”

    No, no, no and no.

  28. Sarah on August 9, 2005 at 4:03 am

    When I was 18 and we finally had an LDS store in Ohio, I thought these kinds of things were amazingly different ideas. At the time I think there were only one or two of them. Since then I’ve seen a bazillion other “almost there” logos; somewhere around the forty-seventh Not-”Got Milk?” t-shirt, I decided it was really tired. I don’t think the logos are any more or less tacky or unappealing than the originals, which are of a style I’m not a big fan of plastering across my chest, but I can say that about a lot of things on t-shirts anymore.

    Disney has all kinds of really great contributions to trademark and copyright law. My favorite is the case of the Evil Daycare Center Mural.

    And… I don’t have a ton of LDS kitsch, but what I do have, I like because it reminds me that I’m a church member, or because I got it at a particular time or from a particular person. Whether it’s tacky or not is secondary.

  29. Silus Grok on August 9, 2005 at 11:27 am

    My favorites are the “I love Mormon Boys” tees at the BYU bookstore… but mostly because I enjoy picturing them being sported by some of my more out gay mormon friends at the local clubs.

    Heh.

    As for the “I can’t, I’m Mormon” tees, I think they perpetuate a negative stereotype of discipleship… which I think is sad.

    Of course, the irony of those two comments coming from the same person probably isn’t lost on my audience.

  30. Peter on August 9, 2005 at 1:14 pm

    Ivan,

    Some thoughts on the “Pretty Woman” case (which, if memory serves, is Cambell v. Acuff-Rose Music) and parody in general (and I confess my memory is bit shady on this–but the collective mind of the ‘nacle can confirm):

    1. As has been mentioned, you must be parodying the original work–not making fun of something else. So, for example, “The Capitol Steps” (that perform political satire to well-known music) might be on shaky ground on this point if challenged, as might Weird Al. (Admittedly, the judicial reasoning on how 2 Live Crew’s version met this standard is somewhat strained if you actually listen to the song.)

    2. There is also a standard about using only as much of the original work as necessary to make your point. This is more fully understandable in the “Pretty Woman” facts because 2 Live Crew’s version doesn’t sound much like the original, nor do the words closely track the original.

    3. I believe the “Pretty Woman” case even brought up whether the 2 Live version would dilute the market for the Roy Orbison version–which is a strange thing to even bring up in that it seems more the domain of trademark law, except that the 2 Live Crew case was interesting, at the time at least, because there was no doubt that the song in question was for commercial gain and I believe earlier case law implied all commercial works were presumptively infringing.

    4. As even these murky points allude to, litigating these issues is potentially time-consuming and expensive–even for Weird Al. So those t-shirt manufacturers might be wise to withdraw their products if they got a cease and desist letter (though, as pointed out, they’re treading more on trademark infringement than copyright infringement).

    5. None of this is meant as trademark or copyright advice to any persons, t-shirt manufacturers, or LDS boy bands, living or dead.

  31. JKS on August 10, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    “As for the “I can’t, I’m Mormon” tees, I think they perpetuate a negative stereotype of discipleship… which I think is sad.”

    I totally don’t think that is negative!!! I have said those words, or similar words, and every single time it was with a smile and not a single regret. If you can’t say the words “No thanks” you might have a really hard time being a Mormon.

  32. Rick M on August 15, 2005 at 11:38 am

    Thanks for the post. I have as good a sense of humor as anyone, but I have always found this Mormon kitsch to be appalling, not to mention embarassing (for the person wearing this junk and for myself in that this stuff is associated with the church I am a member of). I think the copyright discussion misses the point: this stuff is tacky, often makes light of sacred things, and sends a wrong message to the kids who think this is cool. It bugs me to see people making a quick buck from this and bugs me even more to see it sold in places like the BYU Bookstore or Deseret Book. Go to the deseretbook.com website and look up T-shirts. Who buys this stuff anyway? Who thinks President Hinckley had this (http://deseretbook.com/store/product?product_id=100038946) in mind when he gave his six “be” talk?

  33. Mike on September 6, 2005 at 6:10 pm

    OK. First off, I am a Mormon. Secondly, I don’t appreciate all the crap you are giving us. We did not make these shirts to create fighting and people hating us. We created them for laughter. And they ARE legal just to inform you. So please, quit giving us crap and realize we are people just like you.

  34. John on September 6, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    The shirts aren’t funny. They’re just unstylish.

  35. manaen on September 6, 2005 at 8:43 pm

    I believe an important part of our message is what we will do — “will” used here both as future tense and as volition — and how that helps us grow, founded on the atonement and repentance. If you prefer to focus your message on the absence instead on of the essence, my main concern with the “I Can’t – I’m Mormon” slogan would be that it incorrectly confirms the morgbot caricature. I’d prefer something like “I Won’t [*will* not] – I’m LDS.”

    As at a business dinner last week, I sometimes explain that I don’t believe what I believe because I’m LDS but I’m LDS because that’s what I believe. I don’t refrain from the alcohol and wagering because I’m LDS but I refrain & I’m LDS because that’s what I’ve come to believe is right.

    I’m unqualified to offer a worthwhile opinion as to whether an item of clothing is virtuous, lovely, or of good report. However, those seem to be good guiding principles.

  36. David on September 11, 2005 at 1:20 am

    I love those T-shirts! I want one! Does anybody know where I can get one?