Temo Rivera, a teacher in Morelia, Mexico, was shopping in the men’s section of his local Sears recently when he picked up an awfully familiar looking T-shirt. The image on the front showed E.T. in silhouette making a call from a phone booth. The same graphic was on a shirt he’d ordered from Threadless, the online T-shirt company run out of a warehouse on Ravenswood near Irving Park. He checked the label: the mark under the collar said “JNS Jeanious,” which he says is a Sears house brand. A couple weeks later he spotted another Threadless design at Sears, a pileup of demented bunnies eyeing a forlorn carrot. This one also had the JNS Jeanious label. He snapped a couple pictures with his phone and posted them to his Flickr account, where it was noticed by blogger Chris Glass and then blogged again at Mediabistro’s Unbeige.

“It’s happened before,” says Bob Nanna, Threadless’s press, promotions, and music guy. They hadn’t heard about the Sears shirts till I called. “Usually smaller stores in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia–and now it looks like Mexico, too.” Threadless has an unusual relationship with the artists who design the shirts it sells. They upload ideas, customers browse and vote, and Threadless prints and distributes the winners. Each week about 800 submissions get about 2,000 votes apiece, and the company adds a handful of new shirts to its catalog. The winning artists get $1,500 cash and $500 more in gift certificates and prizes.

Nanna says it’s easy to reproduce their designs. “Anyone can just take the image from our Web site and then fix it up in Illustrator,” he says. But that doesn’t mean they should. Threadless owns the right to “reproduce, make derivatives, distribute, and display the work publicly,” according to its lawyer, Amy Brosius. “We are pursuing potential copyright violations in Mexico, Australia, the UK, and Asia right now. Occasionally there is an issue with companies not understanding that designs like these are subject to copyright protection and that Threadless has exclusivity over these designs. Often, though, it’s a case of companies simply not caring that they are making unauthorized use. They do it and believe they won’t be caught.”

Eagle-eyed fans like Rivera have reported other knockoffs to Threadless and T-shirt blogs like Preshrunk and TCritic. Brosius is looking into at least one design by Todd Goldman, the artist who created the wildly popular “Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them” shirts, bumper stickers, and books. The Threadless design in question, by G. Dan Covert, has a smiling cloud delivering a lightning bolt and reads “God hates techno.” Goldman’s has a smiling cloud, lightning, and the text “God loves quitters.”

Once or twice the finger has even pointed back at Threadless. Last winter Preshrunk reported that a Threadless design by “rocket-robyn” called “Tagged,” showing two kids back-to-back under giant umbrellas spray-painting in the rain, was lifted directly from a stencil by Australian graffiti artists Miso and Ghostpatrol. Threadless checked it out, acknowledged the rip-off, and stopped selling the shirt. Miso and Ghostpatrol didn’t blame Threadless, though. “They didn’t take the design knowing that it was stolen,” Miso wrote at StencilRevolution. “This is the fault of the ‘designer.'” A couple commenters at Threadless’s blogs weren’t so sure. “On the off chance that someone rips off a design i’ve done . . . i would definitely seek reparations from threadless,” wrote an artist who’s submitted 35 designs (with no winners yet). She also thought they should “do a background check with the subbers available websites etc.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Threadless’s shirt (bottom) and the copy.