German Law and the Disappearing T-shirts

(UPDATE: This has been resolved. The T-shirts are once again available from Irish Election via Spreadshirt.
Spreadshirt has outlined its position in the comments below.)

The Picturegate t-shirts went missing this morning from Irish Election’s Spreadshirt shop.

Here’s why:

Hello Allen,

Many thanks for your email.

Unfortunately I have to tell you that we cannot release the motif at this shop.
I know that you are the copyright holder of the specific desigs. But they infringe the personal rights of Mr. Brian Cowen.
According to German law it is not allowed to use pictures of famous persons without permission. This applies to satiric or caricature too.
The use of such designs can lead to very high fines. We hope you understand.

For further questions please don’t hesitate to contact me again.

Best regards

Spreadshirt Service

I really don’t know what to say.

EDIT: Something smells bad here. I’ve just pulled all these images from Spreadshirt’s own shop:
And there’s plenty of a sexual nature too.
I’ve emailed them back for clarification.

26 thoughts on “German Law and the Disappearing T-shirts”

  1. hi,

    thanks for clarifying – I just wanted to add 2 points to the discussion:

    1. re “path of least resistance” – if you know german law, you know that you have to pay *instantly* high fines, even on a cease & desist letter – especially when offending personal rights. so this process is to protect us and the owner of the shop. and especially in the context of t-shirts, because:

    2. “informing the public” – this is actually the critical point. t-shirts aren’t treated as a medium – but as merchandise. so it’s a different story if you print things in a paper (well, even papers have to pay fines sometimes) and if you “inform the public” by offering shirts, selling them, advertising them and actually making money etc. with the portrait of another person on it. chances still are high that a judge doesn’t get the context. (there are other cases in that area, and like joerg said, it’s very complex, but we hope it gets better).

    sorry, again, for any inconvenience – and believe me, it’s not that we like doing this :/

  2. Hi guys,

    Someone asked me if I can confirm that this German law/rule exists and I looked into a bit further. It is very complicated and slightly odd and I can’t explain the whole situation here, but I will summarise.

    Detailed information (in German) is here:

    Any private person has to agree to the publication of a picture. This is different for public persons. Originally the german courts differentiated between absolute person of current history and relative person of current history.

    The first type is a person that is known because of their existence and what they have done (a politician, a scientist, an actor, business leader, etc) the second type is a person that only became known in the context of a certain news story (a solicitor in a big case). Pictures of the first category could be published without any hesitation, Pictures of the second category could be published if in context with the story they became famous for, but their private life was off-limits.

    The European Court of Human Rights disagreed with this interpretation and said that even the first category should have some privacy rights.

    This screwed up the nice categorisation and confused the hell out of the non-experts (AND most experts) to a degree that they tend to go over the top and are afraid now. So Spreadshirt is following the confused and over-the-top interpretation. They are probably not right, but because the situation is not clear, only a court of law could decide what is right or wrong and to risk that would mean to risk the high cost of a court case which is something many would shy away from.

    Even more complication is added by the fact that all photos (even the ones from absolute persons of current history) are only to be used for the purpose of informing the public. If the purpose is another one (e.g. advertisement) the use of a photo has to be granted by the rights holder (the person on the picture).

    With all that in mind, Spreadshirt is seemingly choosing the path of least resistance.

    There are many situations where the laws and the decisions of the European and German courts do make sense, BUT on the flip side it unduly interferes with the freedom of speech in other areas.

    I hope this explains!


  3. This is bizarre for two reasons. First, it’s a massively risk-averse interpretation of the applicable German law (and that’s putting it mildly). Second, I’ve just ordered one of the Cowen tee-shirts with no difficulty. The follow-up email seems to be their boilerplate standard form, mentioning third parties generally but not referring to this at all.

  4. Hi, all,

    The shirts are live again on Spreadshirt. Sean is correct, there is a question of interpretation, as most law is. Our team did the right thing, and disabled the design. Due to the escalation, we (the management team) reviewed this further and decided that in this case, as he is a public figure and this concerns a statement on freedom of speech, we would enable this design. We will continue to review it with our legal team next week.

    Regarding the other designs, there are some questions in this group and we will review them. We cannot review every design uploaded, and act when we are alerted to issues. In this case, Allan himself raised the design to us, as some other people were using it. Upon reviewing the design the team made their decision to disable all of them.

    Obama specifically is a different case. In the US, the laws are different in that public officials, because they are paid by the tax payers, do not have the rights that other citizens do. Their image is allowed to be used without permission. There are some limitation though. You might have heard about the case involving the “Hope” picture, as it is similar to a photo that was taken and their are questions whether recasting that photo is allowable under copyright laws. So you might be able to use your photo of the president, but other people cannot copy that specific photo. Will be interesting how it plays out.

    I wish you all well!

  5. For me It’s also hard to imagine this, Allen; but as we can again witness these days – almost nothing’s impossible.
    Re German law: I keep digging.
    The peace of the night.

  6. Quickly checked some reasons for judgement, without diving too deep into the matter.
    First impression: It’s all a question of interpretation, but perhaps I’ll find a clear definition. Will take some time, though.

  7. I got a mail yesterday saying mine had been shipped. Will that make it a collector’s item?
    Incredible behaviour by Spreadshirt. I’ll know to avoid them from now on.

  8. In fairness he’s probably keeping the sausage economy going in Germany so they’ll want to keep him sweet ;P

  9. Allan, just dropping by via Eoin.

    Will try to veryfy the above.

    For now: Is it possible that my ‘tiny advertise’ caused said reaction? If so, please let me know and the bone of contention will immediately vanish into the orcus.

    Anyway, as I am maltreating the English language I don’t intrigue many German readers / bloggers.

  10. What the fuck?


    1: Demand that they pull the other T-shirts as well or just report them to the German authorities and let the (stupid) law take its course. Sauerkraut for the goose is sauerkraut for the gander.

    2: Get your shirts from an American company. Whatever else you say about the States, they still know what freedom of speech is.

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