You’re browsing an online craft forum when you stumble across a thread full of passionate disagreement, vigorous debate and occasional name-calling. Is it religion? Politics? The machine- vs. hand-quilting debate?
Nope, it’s a topic even more controversial—copyright. Step back, breathe deep and don’t fall for these common myths about copyright law.
Myth number 1: Copyright protects anything and everything I create.
Copyright law protects the ownership of certain kinds of intellectual property—products that are a result of your creativity. Copyright law doesn’t, however, protect every conceivable kind of intellectual creation. The copyright statute states that it protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. “ (17 U.S.C. sec. 102)
We can boil down the legalese to three important points:
- Copyright protects only “works of authorship.” While that’s a broad category—one that includes books, graphics, illustrations, photographs, articles and even software—copyright does not protect ideas themselves, facts or the process of how to do something. That means that the text and images in an article explaining how to make a quilt are protected by copyright, but the general process of quilt-making is not. An original photograph and written description of a specific knit stitch are protected, but the actual process of how to work that stitch is fair game for anyone to write about or photograph, and any maker is free to use that stitch in their own work.
- Copyright protects “original” works—things you create yourself. That means you can’t copy someone else’s crochet pattern and claim copyright protection for it, or reformat someone’s blog post and publish it as your own work. It also means that you can’t incorporate a work not subject to copyright protection (for example, a 300-year-old description of a stitch pattern) in an original work and expect it to become your intellectual property.
- Copyright only protects things that are in a tangible and permanent form. Simply saying something aloud isn’t protected by copyright, but a recording of your voice is. An idea or concept—even a really good one like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—cannot be protected by copyright. However, articles published by Einstein about his theories are in a tangible form and are protected.
In the crafting context, much of what we create is entitled to copyright protection: patterns that are written out and posted online or printed on paper; books, whether in e-form or hard copy; software created to chart designs; illustrations and photographs; blog posts; content on a website; teaching handouts; and humorous cartoons, to name a few. What is and isn’t protected by copyright is a huge and complex topic, and often depends on the specific circumstances.
Myth Number 2: Copyright only protects your work if you’ve included a copyright notice or registered it with the U.S. Copyright Office.
The law says that copyright protection attaches at the time your work is created in a fixed and tangible form. That means you don’t have to do anything special to trigger copyright protection; you need not include a copyright notice, although it’s a good idea to do so, and you don’t have to register each work you create with the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. (phew—that’d be a lot of work, not to mention expensive.) Keep in mind, though, that if you ever want to file a claim in court you will need to register your copyright before filing the lawsuit. If a particular work is critically important and the financial stakes are high, some creators will register their work even without pending litigation to put others on notice that they are claiming ownership of the work.
Myth Number 3: If someone gives something away for free or posts it online, it’s not protected by copyright.
Wrong on both counts. Copyright gives the creator the right to determine how her work can be used and under what terms. If you hold copyright on something, you have the right to decide whether to sell it to someone else and let them collect money for it; whether to sell it yourself and keep all the money; whether to give the work away; and where to distribute it. If you want to post your sewing pattern as a free PDF download on your website, you have the right to do without losing copyright protection. This also means other people cannot reproduce your pattern on their own websites—or give copies of it away in their shop—without your permission. You do not have to charge money for your work to retain copyright protection, either.
Myth Number 4: I only have to change 10 percent of someone else’s copyrighted item before it becomes mine.
Sorry to say, but the so-called “10 percent rule” (you might hear other percentages, like 20 percent, too) is simply not true. If you base a creation on someone else’s copyrighted work, the result is called a “derivative work.” For a derivative work to be entitled to its own copyright protection, the new work has to be substantially different from the original—minor changes aren’t enough. The classic example law professors give is the movie West Side Story, which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and thus a derivative work, but has been transformed into something so different and unique that it deserves its own copyright protection. In contrast, simply reformatting someone else’s article or tweaking someone else’s pattern a little bit isn’t enough to transform the original into something brand-new and copyrightable. No matter what people claim, there is no black-and-white rule about how much change is necessary to transform a derivative work into something new and deserving of its own copyright protection. Best practice for avoiding lawsuits is to get permission from the original copyright owner or seek advice from an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law.
Myth 5: If something is out of print, it’s OK to make copies of it.
Copyright protection, at the time of this writing, extends for 75 years plus the life of the author in the most common cases. It’s only after that period expires that an item is no longer copyright protected, or as it’s commonly called, “in the public domain.” If an item is old enough to have entered the public domain, then it’s fair game for anyone to use. But many books and other written works go out of print long before their copyright protection expires. That means that the author still controls the right to say how the work is distributed—or even if the work can be distributed. An author may have her reasons for not offering a copyrighted work for sale after it goes out of print; she may not like how the projects turned out, for instance, or she may not want her older works to compete with newer works that are still on sale. Don’t rely on the “out of print” designation or you could end up with a costly legal claim against you.
Copyright intersects with real life just often enough to be intriguing, especially in the craft industry, where we are striving to make a living (or at least an income of some sort) from our creativity. As with any legal issue, if you have significant concerns about a copyright-related problem, skip the online chat rooms, and get thee to a licensed attorney!
 Copyright law is complicated. This article is a general summary to help educate Craft Industry Alliance members, but is not intended to provide legal advice. If you have questions about your particular situation, find a licensed attorney well-versed in copyright law to give you advice.
My husband is a copyright attorney and this is a great summary of what he has taught me about copyright as it applies to knitwear design. Thanks for a clear and concise explanation.
Can I upload a tutorial video of free pattern on YOUTUBE?
Of course, I will definitely mention the website also.
It’s always best to check first with the designer and get their explicit permission before creating a video tutorial based on their pattern.
Can I buy a used quilt pattern online?
Short answer: no. The fact that it’s free has nothing to do with it, it still belongs to the rightful owner and you replicating their pattern can mean a loss of traffic and profit for them if it’s published on a blog with ads. Contact them to get their permission (they may say yes!) but never make a tutorial of someone else’s pattern without permission.
I have a question: how to find the copyright owner of knit/crochet patterns that appeared in long defunct magazines and in old foreign (French, Italian) publications so that I can request permission to use those patterns, specifically, to repackage and resell them online?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. You need to start with the copyright notice in the work, then trace it forward to see if it has been renewed or allowed to lapse. There are some works that are so old no copyright attaches — they are already in the public domain, and you can find online lists that purport to give you timelines (like this one http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm). There are also professional services you can hire to research copyright holders since it can get complicated. It involves a lot of research, particularly in the area of which corporations purchased the rights to other companies’ rights, and lots of letters and emailing to see if you can get a response. You might find this link helpful, too: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ22.pdf . Unfortunately, often there is no clear or obvious answer for obscure works, especially ones that were originally published in other countries where the copyright laws are different.
Am I infringing on someone else’s copyright if someone contracts with me to make a specific published pattern for them?
No. In the pattern or the author’s website should say something like this:
“This work is of my own design. Therefore this work is copyrighted. You are free to use this pattern (whether free or paid) for your own personal use. You are allowed to sell items made from this pattern. Please include the name of the pattern and my website. Please also include my name.”
I the designer will say, ” Please attach a card with the project that says Designed by.”
That way you are giving credit to the designer you made the project from.
Need more info on printed patterns for knitwear?
Did you every get an answer to that question?
Great insight! I think it’s more important than ever — in this age of digital information — to understand copyright law and how it applies to what we create.
The one thing I am still confused about is this: can people dictate what other people do with the things they make from a pattern? Many pattern writers say that people cannot sell items that they make with a pattern. Is that correct? My understanding is that people can say that all they want but it won’t hold up in court if a pattern writer decides to sue someone for selling an item made from their pattern. I write patterns and I only note in them that the text and images in my patterns are copyrighted. I do not tell people what they can and cannot do with the things they make with my patterns. Some books will also say that makers cannot sell what they make using the patterns in the book. If only works of authorship are protected why are book publishers and pattern designers telling people what to do with the things they make using their own supplies and money?
This exact issue confuses me as well, the creation of an item from copyrighted material for profit: ok or not?
I now do not buy patterns from designers who say I cannot sell what I make with the pattern. I just figure out my own designs to sell. And if someone sells a quilt from a pattern that I design I am very happy for them that they could make a sale.
I like your attitude about that Anita!
Honestly, this is one of those topics that I could write a whole ‘nother article about. It’s complicated.
Yes I agree Carol. It is complicated. I really do appreciate this article that you wrote here. It’s very well done. I guess you could actually write a whole book about it come to think of it. 🙂
Please do write the article.
I think the article spells it out well… if the pattern says you may not make items from it for sale, then you can’t.
Myth #3 addresses your question.
I’m not sure it does. I think it is saying, for example, here’s my free pattern, you can make stuff with it, but you can’t sell the pattern, or post the pattern on your own site, or reprint the pattern and give it to friends. It doesn’t necessarily cover what you can or can’t do with the actual objects made from that pattern.
I agree with Karen. I don’t think myth #3 answers the question of making and selling items from the pattern.
Thank you so much for spelling this all out for us! It is much appreciated!
This is a great article. As artists I think we should go by the guide of our own conscience – if we aren’t sure what we are doing ok, don’t do it and if we have to wonder or ask if something would hold up in court – it shouldn’t matter. If an artist/maker asks not to use their hard work in a certain way, just be kind and don’t do it. The law is one thing, but choosing to being kind and respectful of others work is another. We should all choose the latter – then there is no question.
Anita, I have been wondering the same thing! I think when I buy a pattern that is copyrighted I cannot sell the pattern or directions as my own, nor can I make copies and give them away. But once I buy the pattern, haven’t I paid the designer for her work? If I make items to sell it is my sewing skill, color choices, textures, etc. that make up the item. Though I think an “original pattern design by” tag would be nice.
Yes, once you buy a pattern, you have paid for the pattern, but with the limits as dictated on the pattern. If the pattern says no sales, then no sales. I hear what you are saying about fabric and color choices and such, but even at that point, the product is not your creation, but a collaboration between the designer’s “bones” and your “skin”. Yes, the designer should ABSOLUTELY be acknowledged – essentially, you wouldn’t have a product to sell without their pattern idea. The most ethical arrangement is one whereby you pay a royalty to the designer for each piece you make from their pattern.
I agree with you and from what I can tell, and it is reiterated in the knitting reference that Kristin posted below, it is not possible (or is very difficult) to enforce the statement that a person cannot sell what they make from a pattern. This is actually what got me into designing my own patterns in the first place so I am thankful for that. In order to avoid the whole situation I now only buy a pattern if I really really like it and it’s basically so difficult to make that I would never want to sell it in the end anyway. I design my own simpler designs for items I would sell.
Here’s a pretty good discussion about this on the Vogue Knitting site. http://www.vogueknitting.com/magazine/article_archive/ask_a_lawyer_knitting_and_copyright
404 at the above link, but you can see the archived article here:
This is off the subject of patterns, what about fonts? For instance, if I make a pillow using a particular school’s colors, but the font I used is from Picmonkey (a free font), is that ok?
Also, I made a pillow using the state outline of Michigan with a particular fabric and have been selling around Michigan in art fairs and gift shops for over a year. The combination of fabrics is mine. Now I see that someone is making the exact same pillow and selling it at a local gift shop. Is this just poor judgement to copy me? Or does this fall under copyright?
Copyright can definitely be a large and confusing subject!
To me the question of copyright has become such an ugly topic that I’ve seen it put the brakes on artistic endeavor. Like so many other things it has been blown so far out of proportion that people are fearful of creating something without long hours of research and permissions. Grandmothers are afraid of making something for a grandchild for fear it will be sold years later in a yard sale and someone will get in a tizzy about the copyright of some old pattern they might have borrowed from a design by a long deceased artist. I once had an art instructor who said there are no new ideas, nothing is original. It’s all been done before. All art is the result of something that someone has seen somewhere, sometime, someplace and it’s imbedded in our memory and at some point re-emerges in some portion of whatever one is creating. Therefore, we are all borrowing from some previously created work, even unaware most of the time. And, still, people feel they have the right to tell others what they can or cannot do with a project they are creating. As a designer of my own works, I know I am always sitting on the shoulders of someone who came before me, whether I knew them or not and others will most likely be doing the same with ideas from my work. It’s what makes the art evolve. The only way to avoid this is to never travel, never see photos of gorgeous ancient ruins, never read a beautiful picture book, never observe something interesting, or beautiful that makes you want to recreate it, for it’s in the mind’s eye whether we know it or not. Yes, you could write another book about this subject . . . it would be a book without end.
I agree with you Patricia, it is all so wide open. I do my own thing and if people think I am stealing from them they are wrong, because I don’t go around looking at others patterns and copy them, I look at nature and natural objects and use them as my incentive. I really am tired of all this copyright business, if one has nothing better to do with their time than to worry about who is using their pattern etc. I feel sorry for them.
Thanks so much for the article. It’s helpful to have it in clear and simple terms. Australian copyright has specifics written into its laws with a whole section devoted to craftworkers and “include pottery, glasswork, sewing, knitting, crochet, macramé, jewellery, tapestry, woodwork, lace work, embroidery, découpage, paper tolling, folk art, and handmade toys.” and another section for sewing and knitting patterns. Pattern designers have the right to specify how we allow the patterns to be used and whether or not items made from them may be sold and under what conditions. It’s not too hard to enforce as the law is clear and as long as the limitations are clearly stated or included with the product, that should be enough. The link for access to the patterns pdf is here: http://www.copyright.org.au/acc_prod/ACC/Information_Sheets/Sewing___Knitting_Patterns.aspx. The link to the pdf for craftworkers is here: http://www.copyright.org.au/acc_prod/ACC/Information_Sheets/Craftworkers___Copyright.aspx?WebsiteKey=8a471e74-3f78-4994-9023-316f0ecef4ef.
I have been working on a crochet pattern for a few weeks, following her pattern to a tee. I’ve crocheted for over 25 years now, and I do write my own patterns as well. During this time of working on this pattern, I also started an item of my own. The pattern that is not mine is more intricated and much more detailed then the one I’m working on. both start with a circle pattern, but then gradually goes into a square. Both circles are very different, the portion that gradually changes to the square (the corners) are very similar, but the rest of the item is different.
Is this breaking the copywrite law?
I’m not a lawyer, Brenda, so I’m not sure, but I think you can determine if your product is significantly different from the other product you’re looking at. If it is, I would think it would be just fine. You want your product to be differentiated in the marketplace anyway so it’s just a good idea in general.
What if I don’t actually buy a pattern from someone but make something similar, just from looking at it. Would that be breaking copyright laws?
I would like to see a response to this question if possible. I’m a long time crocheter and I can look at an image and recreate it. I often write down the pattern as I go and may change the stitches or pattern. I have never sold these items or the patterns.
You can make whatever you want for personal use.
I write a tutorial blog with free patterns. Someone on FB has recently offered one of my designs as a class at a retreat. They did not mention my blog, only that the pattern is free. She told potential students that she would provide them with the patterns and they didn’t need the link. Is this copyright infringement? Or is it just deceit on her part, since anyone who had the link would see that the tutorials are free and wouldn’t need to pay for her class? Can I prevent anyone from teaching my designs?
I would think you couldn’t stop someone from teaching your designs, BUT – the FB gal would be breaking copyright laws by reprinting and distributing your exact pattern without attributing the pattern-saying where it came from and providing the link. She should have required each class participant to go to your blog to get their own copy of the pattern and bring it with them to class. She should also have asked you for permission, out of courtesy.
Continuing my thought: It might not be any different at that point from several folks, say, at an informal stitch club or craft group who decide to all work on the same project at once, each from their own copy of the same pattern.
I’m not an authority on this but I’ve done lots of copyright research lately.
I’d say teaching is fine, but distributing the pattern is not. It’s the same reason you have to buy textbooks in school – the teacher is allowed to use the content to their heart’s content to teach, but they can’t distribute copies of the book and instead make all the students buy their own copy. I feel like the same principle applies here, she should have directed everyone to the website to obtain their own copy or at least given credit (this is OK to me in this circumstance because the pattern is free, if it was paid it would be completely different).
It’s one of those grey areas where, unless you’re a big company, there’s not much you can do. Kind of sad really 🙁
I have a question. Let’s say I buy a book full of crochet blocks, and I’d like to make a video instructional on how to make some of these blocks and upload it to YouTube.
I will NOT be:
– Showing the book or any of it’s contents in the video, including the patterns and pictures of the blocks. Any pictures of blocks will be of the ones I crocheted myself.
– Reproducing the book, it’s contents, or any of the patterns online. If I get questions asking for the pattern I’ll tell them to go and buy the book.
Is this allowed, since I’m not reproducing the contents of the book anywhere? All I’m doing is saying aloud each part of the pattern (“and now we have to do 3dc into this space”) and demonstrating how to do it. I’d give credit to the book in the video description box and/or verbally in the video. I feel like this is protected by point #1 but I’m not sure – if someone publishes a crochet pattern, then surely they don’t own the *method* for that pattern?
“1302. Designs not subject to protection3
Protection under this chapter shall not be available for a design that is—
(1) not original;
(2) staple or commonplace, such as a standard geometric figure, a familiar symbol, an emblem, or a motif, or another shape, pattern, or configuration which has become standard, common, prevalent, or ordinary;
(3) different from a design excluded by paragraph (2) only in insignificant details or in elements which are variants commonly used in the relevant trades;
(4) dictated solely by a utilitarian function of the article that embodies it;” Many crotchet designs are not covered. Designers cannot claim color changes or a combo of two existing stitches as unique.
So interesting. I just saw a cowl kit on FB, and the pattern is free, but you pay for the yarn. One click takes you to the pattern maker, and she says on Ravelry that no one contacted her about using the pattern. I think that’s a bold move.
In another ad, I saw a beautiful crochet blanket, and the pattern-maker says that it can only be made for non-commercial use. But I can tell (and I’m still a newbie crocheter) that it’s just a typical crochet stitch using different colors for each row. How is this copyright-able?
can I take an image from a sweater for example, and put the image on something else like a watch – and sell it
I have a similar situation. There is a plaid pattern that I created that is used to print the squares out and apply glitter to each square individually. Can someone claim that as their own if they think they printed out the plaid pattern first to follow? I’m being accused of that right now and can’t find any attorney to want to talk to me!
If I make a post about an old crochet pattern that I found in my craft files, can I share the pattern to an individual who would like to try it?