Copyright Thoughts and Links

You know how you go back and forth on whether or not to post on a topic, then something pushes you over the edge?  That’s what this post is like.  First off, let me say I am not an intellectual property lawyer.  In fact, I’ve never, ever been to lawschool.  I considered just making this post a series of links that might be helpful to people, but I’m going to add a few thoughts here and there as well, avoiding personal opinion as much as possible.  And before I get started, let me say that I know this can be an emotional topic but please, oh please, if you feel the need to let me know how angry you are, please email me (address at top right) instead of leaving the comment here.  I try to maintain a happy blog here.  🙂 Thanks.  Oh yes, and feel free to include your own reputable links (no discussion threads, please) in the comments. 

There seem to be a lot of areas of copyright in general and more specifically related to sewing that just aren’t readily known to the general population.  Even people who should know better sometimes are tempted to cut and paste pictures or content because it’s just so easy on the internet.  I’ve seen my free purse pattern posted in it’s entirety on someone’s blog that I’ve never had any communication with.  But why should it matter?  You ask.  It’s free, right?  Well, I realize that the Lindie Bag isn’t rocket science, but it does matter to me.  And more importantly, it violates copyright law.  And btw this was not the incident that pushed me over the edge.  Please don’t ask me about that one.  Thanks.

When I started my internet research, I came across several discussion threads.  They were frustrating to read because people were making points based on emotional appeals and making moral points instead of stating what the actual law was.  People use legally-defined terms improperly all the time to make a point.  But how does she know, if she didn’t go to law school? Well, I’m glad you asked!  The legal definitions are just a few clicks away.

The first place I would encourage anyone who’s interested to read is the U.S. Copyright Office web site.

The woman who cut and paste my Lindie Bag Pattern was very nice and took the post down when I brought it to her attention.  She said she looked around and didn’t see a copyright notice on my blog so figured it was fine to cut and paste.  Not so.  See here, “Copyright is secured automatically when the work is created…”  My pattern didn’t need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, or even have the copyright symbol on it for me to own the copyright.  Good rule of thumb here – always ask before taking anything.

Okay, let’s look at the term “derivative work”.  It is defined this way: “…a work based upon one or more preexisting works…” (see here and scroll down for the description in it’s entirety).  So let’s say you see a tutorial for some quilted widgets.  Then you see another tutorial for quilted widgets.  Can you then make some minor changes to and publish your own tutorial based on those others that you saw?  This is part of Circular 40: Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts which includes sewing, knitting, crochet, and needlework patterns (see page 2):

“The owner of copyright in a work has the exclusive right to make copies, to prepare derivative works, to sell or distribute copies, and to display the works publicly.”  (Circular 40, page 1)

I have also read that if you change 20% of a pattern, then it’s your own.  This is a bad, bad myth.  There is nothing I could find about this from any reputable source.  If you change 20% of a pattern that you’ve used and then republish it, it sure sounds like a derivative work to me (and yes, that is my opinion).

Well that’s enough for today.  There’s so much more info than I can put together in a post.  And just so I don’t get into any trouble, let me just say very clearly – don’t take my advice alone, since I’M NOT A LAWYER. 

And now just one more fun variable to throw in here:  remember that when something goes to court, emotional appeals may render a judgement that doesn’t seem to fit exactly with the law and then these cases can be used as precedents for future cases even if they shouldn’t have won in the first place.  Fun, isn’t it?

I had a hard time finding all this information in one place and hope that this is helpful as you start your own research into Copyright Law.

31 thoughts on “Copyright Thoughts and Links

  1. This was a helpful post. It sounds like you’re going through a bit of a hard time and I’m sorry about that.

    I’ve often wondered about copyright law, but have only looked into it a little. I struggle with what is someone’s design versus a common technique. For example, a lot of hat patterns use a spiral decrease at the top. I first learned to do that increase in a hat pattern from a book. Now, if I create my own hat pattern and include that type of decrease, I wonder if I am violating copyright law? There are only a few ways to decrease for a hat and it’s not a unique feature of the hat. That’s what I’m going to look into.

  2. Great post and thanks for sharing the information. Just out of curiosity, if someone (for sake of this example – me) posts a visual tutorial for say pin cushions based upon 2 that I have seen in a book, I am not selling, just showing how to make them, in your non-lawyerly opinion, did I violate copyright law? 🙂

  3. thanks for all the info/links… this subject is so sticky, especially with how many inspiring blogs there are out there… i know that it has been very hard for me to feel like i am creating anything “original” since i started reading blogs. sometimes it seems like everyone else already made or did what i have been dreaming up 🙂 its really good to hear some of the legal aspects of it all since it can so easily become an emotional.

  4. Thank you for sharing so honestly and factually! It is really nice to know all the real facts! It is such a new realm and lots of people do not know the real laws so thank you for clearing them up! and this makes me want to put a copyright sign on my blog too.

  5. Speaking as one who has done the time in law school – thanks for bothering to take the time to find reputable information and for emphasizing the fact that if you really want to know how to protect your work/what you can borrow you should look for a real life lawyer, not a discussion thread. I am not an intellectual property lawyer and would not be the one to go to, but I do want to add that if you actually want to protect your work don’t rely on the “copyright is automatic when created.” You need to securely document date of creation (which can be done fairly simply) or, if you’re serious about protecting it, go through the effort of registering it. You also want to clearly mark it to avoid any question of intent. All of this is clear from the link you provided, but knowing not everyone would follow the link I wanted to urge them to do so.

  6. A friend and I were just discussing this type of thing not long ago.

    Do you know, or what is your opinion on using a pattern either downloaded or a Simplicity/McCall’s-type pattern to make items for resale?

    For example, if I or anyone else were to sew a bunch of garments and bags to sell at a holiday bazaar would that be legal if we did not design or create the patterns or if we weren’t licensees of the pattern?

    What are your thoughts?

  7. Thanks for doing some research and finding good information, it is so frustrating reading threads on Etsy where people say ‘if they don’t want us to copy and use patterns don’t put them out there’.

  8. This is a great topic, and one that I always grapple with as well. There is such a blurred line because so many people are crafting, or not serious about what they are making, so they don’t take it seriously. They don’t think it matters, but it does.

  9. Such a touchy subject but one that everyone should understand, so many think it just won’t hurt to copy something just that once, but it does.
    I am sure you have opened many crafters eyes and set them inthe right direction to learn lots more on the subject.
    Happy sewing

  10. OOOOOh, yes. As an ex-church secretary, this topic really gets my dander up! People, please, it is not OK to go with the attitude of, “don’t ask and apologize later, if it’s not OK.” When in doubt, do NOT do it. It is that simple. If you really want to do it, take the time to check out the rights you have.

  11. Thanks for the info. I’m sure we all need to have this bought to our attention as everyone in blogland is so helpful and eager to share, we should never abuse this sharing or trust.
    Good for you Linda to check on your things.

  12. Linda,
    Great research I too have always wondered about this and would feel horrible if I stepped on anyones toes. Do you know if it’s ok to sell something you made using someone’s pattern or if you say this bag for example was made using so and so’s pattern? Since so many hand crafted items can be similiar it’s a really shady area. Someone in one of my quilt guilds had said you could make items to sell using other’s patterns because you are putting your own “spin” on it. Not sure if this is true. Thanks for the help.

  13. Your Lindie bag DOES matter! Apart from any legal or copyright issues, its just plain RUDE not ask permission to use or copy something before you do it, and then not to give an acknowledgement of the originator even if you change it a bit. I always try to post a link or an acknowlegement if something inspires me – even if it was just a ‘spark’ and I produce something that looks completely different.

    Thank you for taking the trouble to post what you found out and for the useful links.

  14. Although I don’t have content like the Lindie Bag, I’m grateful for this post in reference to the tips and ideas I’ve been posting on my blog. For example, I just posted a list of tips about resume writing, and I wouldn’t want anyone to just copy and paste.

    It’s very helpful to understand the copyright issues around blogs and online content.

    Thanks muchly.

  15. That 20% rule sounds a lot like the one for written work. I worked in theatre and we were not allowed to cut or change any more than 20% of the entire script without violating the copyright of the work. The sense is that if you change more than 20% of the show, then you’re not really doing the show as it was written and thus misrepresenting the author. It then becomes a “based upon” work. So I can see where you could make a false logic leap from this rule from written work to visual work.
    Either way, law or no law, it’s not cool to repost anything without permission. I don’t blame you for being up in arms about it. It’s your pattern, it’s your right.

  16. Eew. Sorry someone has ripped you off. You said not to ask, but you know I want to know. But I’m not asking, so don’t tell me. Thank you for sharing the links and your research.

  17. Pingback: Why the law can make your head spin! « Musings of a southern girl at heart

  18. An easy way to prove when you created a work it to mail a copy of the pattern/photo/writing to yourself and DO NOT OPEN IT! The post office has postmarked it with the date.

    I am not familiar with the rules for patterns but I am familiar with copyrights law for Photography. I used to work at a Photo Lab and I have been screamed at for not copying professional photos on the Picture Maker Machines. I even had to throw one woman out of a Target because she was so upset I wouldn’t violate copyright laws to copy her professional photo.

    My point is that many Artists, Photographers, Authors, etc make their living on their creativity and skill. By blatantly violating copyright you are taking food out of the mouth of the one you admire. They say that imitation is a form of flattery.. yes but definitely NO. For me, imitation means I cannot afford to put food on the table.

  19. Great post Linda.
    I might add that I think it’s good manners to acknowledge your sources. If I was publishing written work, I’d have a bibliography that acknoweldged the sources used for my writing – if I’m publishing about handmade articles on my blog, I acknowledge where the inspiration came from.

    Karen: Generally when you buy commercial patterns, it will say somewhere on it that the pattern is for personal use at home and not for making goods for sale.

  20. I did know the rule that “creater owns copright” we did a little of this at Uni. (not much though).
    We were also told that it does help to have as much proof as possible to hand that you crrated something, one put forward by out tutor (also a designer) was to send a copy of the creation to yourself in the post sealed then you have a dated stamped proof (somewhat) that you created it. I’ve never bothered though, and it would annoy me a lot if whathappened to you happened to me.
    It’s an interesting subject.

  21. I have a question that I have been trying to figure out what is the blog law on the following: 1. Is it okay to have a link on your blog to a favorite blog? 2. Is it okay to post about a subject and have a link to another blog?

    I have been real nervous about this because I definately do not want to get into trouble. Any help is greatly appreciated:)

  22. Hi Shannon,

    I don’t know if you saw the follow up post I did. Apparently I made a lot of people nervous about their linking and posting inspired pictures. There is something called fair use that allows the use of copyrighted items for comment. So saying, “I used this pattern (link) and made this item (picture) and I love it!” is totally fine. Check out the fair-use doctrine here:

    I hope this helps!

  23. I had concerns about copyright laws last week after seeing a bunch of photos on blogs obviously taken from other sources. So, I asked my friend, a lawyer who used to work in the copyright office. She gave me her interpretation of the law.

    From what she told me, it is OK to link to another blog/website but if you take a photo from that website and place it on yours, you better have permission to do so first. The “fair use” doctrine is often misinterpreted. Better safe than sorry.

    This site has good information:

  24. Copyright rules are so varied and sometime very hard to understand.. for example.
    I do costumes and sometimes I have to look at a picture and make what I need because there isn’t a pattern for me to use commercial or other wise.
    Last January, I needed a middle ages type outfit for 3 of my characters. So, I went looking for a pattern, none were available. So, I studied the artwork that I was using. Took a pattern from a jumper (simplicity) and began to work with it to make this surcoat that I needed. I made 3 they turned out great>

    This new season of costumes from simplicity has yielded a pattern nearly exactly like the one I concocted…. does this mean that Simplicity copied my work.. I made it first off of a painting..

    No, it just means that great minds run in the same stream>

    COPYING exact work yes that infringes… but making a pattern on your own and then finding the same thing somewhere else.. doesn’t mean that yours has been copied.

  25. I saw your tutorials and really liked them.
    since I care about the Copyright rules, I would like to have your permission for translate some of them to Hebrew.
    (I know my English is quite problematic, but my Hebrew is batter 😉
    so.. can I?

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