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.