The original photo, which was used in the iconic “Hope” Obama campaign poster, is owned by AP.
AP says the retailers’ use of the image, taken by one of its photographers, is a breach of copyright.
AP spokesman Paul Colford says: “When a commercial entity such as these retailers, or the company that sold the shirts to them, gets something for nothing by using an AP photo without credit or compensation, it undermines the AP’s ability to cover the news and devalues the work that our journalists do, often in dangerous locations where they may literally risk life and limb to cover a story.”
The image is also the subject of another legal dispute relating to artist Shepard Fairey who adapted the photo for use in the presidential campaign.
AP said it would sue Fairey in 2009 but they settled the dispute in January with an agreement to split the proceeds of his merchandise carrying the image.
Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom and Zumiez did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.