Copyright in Knitting and Crocheting

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Knitting ImageDisclosure: I am not a knitter/crocheter. Though many of my loved ones are and I turned to them for help writing this story, I obviously don’t know as much as those who participate in it. As such, mistakes may be made and corrections will be posted as needed.

Crafts, like knitting and crocheting, typically are a fun way to pass the time while making something for yourself or others. However, they are also creative outlets and a form of self-expression.

While this makes the craft all the more enjoyable, it also means that as forms of creativity fixed into a tangible medium of expression, they are also, potentially at least, subject to copyright issues.

While one doesn’t often think about copyright and these forms of crafts, as communities around these activities have grown online, so have the copyright issues within them.

Simply put, as with movies, music and other copyrighted works, it’s become easier than ever to share, illegally and legally, many of the components of these arts. As such, questions and challenges to the copyright of these works have become more common.

To help with that, we’re going to take a quick look at the common copyright issues faced by these crafts and what creators should be on the lookout for, both so they can protect their work and ensure that they don’t infringe upon someone else.

Copyright in Knitting and Crocheting Patterns

Ravelry LogoKnitting and crocheting typically involves a printed pattern that is then used by the person who purchased or obtained it to create the actual crocheted/knitted work.

The pattern itself is, in most cases, a combination of text instruction and images. The text instructions usually include both descriptive language and step-by-step instructions. The images can include both photos of the finished work and, in some cases, a diagram that visually shows how the text instructions are to be carried out.

In that regard, patterns are a great deal like recipes, which also typically contain a mix of images, descriptive text and instructions. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, recipes that are merely lists of ingredients and formulas do not qualify for copyright protection. However, such protection does expand to other areas of the recipe, including descriptive text.

So it would stand to reason that the raw instructions in a knitting pattern, though not the descriptive text and images, would not be subject to copyright. This viewpoint is supported by Circular 31 of the U.S. Copyright Office, which says copyright is not available for “procedures for doing, making or building things.”

However, the U.S. Copyright Office has also included knitting and crochet patterns in its list “Works of Visual Arts” indicating that the patterns may qualify for copyright protection as a visual work.

Either way, it’s best to assume that the pattern itself is copyrighted. Even under the most favorable interpretation, elements of the pattern are copyrightable. This means you can not copy, share, download or publicly display the pattern without permission. This includes whether the pattern is free or paid for.

However, when you obtain a pattern legally, either for free or for pay, there is an implied license that you’re going to use that pattern to create the work within it. It’s unlikely, for example, that a pattern designer would sue or take action on a knitter who used a pattern to create the work within it, because that is precisely what they were supposed to do.

Still, the end product does create its own set of questions, none of which have easy answers.

Copyright and the Final Product

Knitted Socks ImageCopyright law and the Copyright Office are very clear on one issue: Copyright does not extend to useful articles. This includes clothes, blankets, curtains, pot holders or other common creations of knitting and crocheting.

That being said, copyright can extend to non-useful creative expressions that are affixed to a useful article. For example, copyright can protect a photo printed on a shirt, but not the shirt itself.

With knitting, this means that it is theoretically possible for a pattern to be creative enough and independent enough from the article’s useful function to qualify for protection. However, in most cases, such a protection is unlikely and would only extend to the creative elements, not to the techniques that make it.

But with knitting and crocheting comes a different question. While it’s assumed that you are allowed to use your legally-acquired pattern make a product for your personal use, many want to sell their work. However, many knitting patterns have disclaimers and warnings that say such behavior is prohibited.

Most lawyers, however, say that this argument is false. However, as has been repeatedly pointed out, there is effectively no relevant precedent on the matter.

The most commonly cited case, Baker v. Selden, is from 1879, meaning it predates both the 1908 and 1972 copyright acts, and deals with two similar sets of accounting books, not knitting or crochet patterns. While it’s a commonly cited case dealing with the separation between ideas and expression in copyright law, it is far from a modern and directly-relevant case.

The truth is that, despite the disclaimers, no publisher has filed a suit and taken it all the way to a trial. There is no precedent on this matter that I or others have been able to find and most experts seem to feel that publisher arguments would be dubious.

Still, if you are a knitter and are interested in reselling your creations, it’s likely best to avoid patterns that have such disclaimers or, even better, expressly allow such use. Not only does this prevent you from facing a possible lawsuit, even if you can win, a lawsuit is an unpleasant experience best avoided, but it discourages publishers from putting such limitations on their patterns.

In short, while there hasn’t been any precedent and most publishers don’t even both to register the copyright in their patterns, meaning a lawsuit is more or less impossible, no one wants to be the test case if they can avoid it. Besides, even without a lawsuit, publishers can file DMCA takedown notices if works are sold online and send threat letters over any detected use.

While not as serious of a headache as a lawsuit, very few want to deal with those either.

Bottom Line

The role copyright plays in knitting and crocheting is bizarre. While the law almost certainly does apply to patterns and to some of the created works, lawsuits, litigation and even serious threats are fairly rare, especially when compared to other types of works.

In fact, most of the copyright challenges to knitting focus not on knitters infringing one another, but rather, knitters allegedly infringing other works. For example, in 2008, the BBC targeted knitters that were making their own versions of Doctor Who characters without a license.

Still, the Internet has brought these issues to something of a head. Not only are there knitting and crocheting communities that bring people together who enjoy those arts, there are sites like Etsy where people often sell finished products and Patternfish for patterns.

As more and more people get involved in the commercial side of these crafts, more battles are going to arise.

Hopefully though, it won’t be you or anyone you know in the crosshairs of such a fight.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. There may not be a modern court case on this matter, but the 1972 copyright act states, “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” 17 U.S.C. § 102(b)

  2. I hope you will allow me to clear up a few issues of confusion. If I may…

    You stated: “The role copyright plays in knitting and crocheting is bizarre. While the law almost certainly does apply to patterns and to some of the created works….”

    Actually, copyright law plays no part whatsoever in patterns or products. Neither patterns, nor the use of their end products, are copyrightable. Period. If the law were stated in plain english, it would be easier to read, but the “legalese” is what makes it confusing. That you went to the law and read it is amazing and highly commedable. Yet perhaps I can clear up a few things.

    The overall take home message: No pattern, or set of instructions, regardless of how intricate, creative, or original, can be copyrighted. Neither is the use of the end product of said pattern or instruction bound by any law. Therefore you can tell your readers there is no need for caution nor any need to stay away from patterns with disclaimers. Their disclaimers have no legality, and the likelihood of a lawsuit is negligible as I doubt any court nowadays would agree to hear the case as there are numerous precedents on the issue and it has been decided by various supreme courts and circuit courts. The “pattern issue” has been so utterly decided that a judge would most likely dismiss the case. Simplicity patterns tried to sue over their patterns and lost. The website for a long explanation regarding this whole issue is listed at the end. It includes the precedents.

    I’ve given the following explanation to others, so maybe it will help your readers also…

    The best example regarding all the hoopla surrounding the “needlework pattern copyright” issue would be a set of blueprints for a house. A contractor (builder), or real estate company, who purchases a set of blueprints (a pattern) for the construction of a house, may build AND SELL as many homes with those blueprints as he/she wishes, and the architect who designed the house, has no right to any royalties from the sale of those homes whatsoever. The architect was paid for his/her work on the design, and that is ALL the architect is entitled to. The architect has no legal right to dictate to the contractor how to use the blueprints once the sale of the blueprints (pattern) has commenced.

    Patterns are instructions, and their sole purpose is for making a useful end product. “Useful product” is a legal term, and “useful products” are not copyrightable. A designer has no right to a monopoly on the end product of their design or its use. The right to free enterprise and trade, and commerce laws prevent such monopolies and dictatorships. What someone makes from their own hands and their own money via a pattern is theirs to do with as they please. It’s ludicrous for designers (and I am a crochet designer) to think we somehow have that much control or that monumentous of a “right” over how people use our designs.

    Also, and this one is VERY important, once the pattern enters the “public domain,” (ie. posted freely on a website) it now belongs to “the people” and no longer even belongs to the original designer. The best thing for designers who want monopolies on their designs, is to NEVER sell, give, or publish them in the first place.

    As for “giving credit” to the designer, that is also not required by any law, although it IS respectful and honorable, as all contractors DO acknowledge the architect when building. Though it is not required, it is good buisness practice if they ever want to do business again with that architect.

    Copyrights are for the protection of artistic endeavors, and although those who create designs using the “fiber arts” somehow feel jipped, alas, there is still no protection. A more “artistic,” example is this:

    I am a music composer, and although the crochet patterns I create aren’t protected by copyright, my music is. Here’s why…

    Musical compositions fall under the protection of copyright law, because music is not considered a “useable product.” What that means is this: music’s entire value is in its “hearing.” It has no other function than to just “be heard.” Music’s identity and its function are one and the same. Music is sound and its function is sound. Its function and its identity cannot be separated. Any type of art, or anything whose function exists completely on its own merit…its identity is also its function…is protected by copyright law. For example, sculptures, paintings, literature, scripts, musical compositions, etc etc are all examples of non usable products, because their ONLY function is to “sit there,” (a sculpture), “hang there,” (a painting), “be read,” (literature), or be “heard, (music). The entire value of each of these things, rests within the thing itself, and that is its only function. It is therefore protected.

    However, regarding fibre art that IS actual art:

    If someone designed and created for example, a beautiful fillet crochet garden scene, which was then framed and hung on a wall as art, and if that was it’s ONLY function, (meaning the whole thing is for artistic value where the yarn was simply used as the chosen medium) that fibre artwork, and possibly the pattern, most likely would be protected, and any knockoffs could be prosecuted. (if the artist had it formally copyrighted.)

    Bottom line again is: No pattern or set of instructions, etc etc, regardless of how intricate, creative, or original, can be copyrighted. Neither is the use of the end product of such instruction bound by any law. The best way to ensure that you are the only one with bragging rights to your designs, is to never share them in the first place.

    For an indepth review of patterns non copyright law go here….

    http://www.tabberone.com/Trademarks/CopyrightLaw/Patterns.shtml

    • I was wondering about that myself–if it’s legal to buy a pattern, follow it, then sell the finished product.

      I’m thinking I should just spare myself any worry and start coming up with patterns of my own.

  3. There is a seller, on several well known websites, that sells crochet patterns. He/she claims to be the original designer of these patterns. This is not true. Several of his/her patterns were taken from a “free” pattern website. I know this because I made items from the free patterns. He/she claims to have copyrights to the patterns he/she did not create. He/she has had some of the “free” patterns published (as her own creations) and are being sold in booklet form on websites such as Amazon, eBay, etc.. The patterns are clearly not his/her own designs because they are so unique, there is absolutely no similarities found on the internet when compared to the patterns I’m speaking of. The patterns were created back in the 1940’s by a wonderful crochet pattern creator named Alice Fowler. I am 100% sure of this because I am an avid crocheter and have been for years. I surf the internet daily for new and unique patterns and Alice Fowler’s are definitely unique.

    I felt I needed to get this off my chest because it bothers me greatly when someone takes credit and money from someone else’s work. It’s sad really.

    • I appreciate this article. I am a novelist, but I just recently began to sell some of my crochet patterns and was wondering if the law was similar to recipes (which I also sell). It’s identical. For recipes, some of the descriptive text and photos might be marginally copyrightable. But the rest of it-ingredients, instructions etc. are not, because it is a common and useful item. Thanks again.

      • Laura does this mean if I am using a crochet pattern from one of those big book of squares, or a book full of example patterns, I can use that square in my overall blanket freely as long as I don’t use any of the descriptive text or photos from the original book but only my own? I have wondered on that.

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