Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Copyright Chronicles Continue

A few posts ago, I alluded to the "not to be knitted for resale" language that appears at the bottom of many knitting patterns. I have to say that this language perplexes me, from a legal standpoint.

Wait: here's your disclaimer. I'm not giving you legal advice. I'm not your lawyer. I'm just shooting my mouth off on a blog, and if you need advice about your own situation, you must find your own lawyer with whom to discuss the specifics of your situation. Read no further unless you agree.

Okay, back to the Copyright Chronicles (thanks for the name, Liza).

Loyal reader The AmpuT (who likes to torture unwitting Home Depot clerks -- she's my kind of gal) asks how copyright law impacts "people selling knitted items derived from patterns they've purchased (or downloaded for "free" on the internet)? . . . When is that okay (if ever)?"

I knew someone was going to ask me this, and the reason I didn't bring it up myself was because I really don't know the answer to this one.

Let me start with the easy part. From a copyright perspective, there's no difference between a pattern that is printed on cardstock and covered with a plastic sleeve and sold in a yarn shop, and one that you can print out for free on the internet. A pattern is subject to the same protection under copyright law regardless of which form it's in. The fact that you don't pay for the pattern on the internet doesn't matter. Hear me? DOESN'T MATTER. You can give away a pattern and that doesn't mean your work isn't copyrighted. That is, as we nerdy lawyers say, "a distinction without a difference." So whatever the rule is about knitting for resale, it applies exactly the same no matter what the source of the pattern -- internet, yarn shop, book -- or whether you got it for free or paid for it.

So what is the rule about knitting for resale?

I just don't know.

Let's backtrack a little. Copyright protection applies to the written expression of the design, first and foremost. It's the written-out language of the pattern that is most clearly subject to legal protection. (This is why photocopying questions are a little bit easier to address, because you're talking about a verbatim copy of the copyrighted pattern, and the exact expression of the pattern is the part that has the highest and most clearly defined protection.)

But in the knitting-for-resale scenario, you aren't talking about copies of the pattern directions being made and sold (which is clearly illegal) but rather copies of the finished garment being made and sold. To win on this kind of claim, you may well have to show that your garment itself, not just the written directions for it, is protected by copyright. And it gets much murkier when you are claiming copyright protection extends to the whole sweater design, as opposed to just the written directions.

Here's a quote from the U.S. copyright office (emphasis added):

"Designs for useful articles, such as vehicular bodies, wearing apparel, household appliances and the like are not protected by copyright. However the design of the useful article is subject to copyright protection to the degree that its pictorial, graphic or sculptural features can be identified as existing independently of the utilitarian object in which they are embodied."

Clothing is utilitarian -- it's meant to cover the body, to provide warmth and protection. Think of a simple crewneck sweater with ribbing at cuffs and sleeves. If you write up a pattern for such a basic sweater, you can't claim that your sweater design itself is copyrightable. [Of course, you'd claim the written directions, i.e. the exact way you describe how to make the sweater, is copyrightable, but I'm not talking about the verbal instructions, I'm talking about the garment design itself.] Og the Caveman came up with the notion of a garment that covers your chest and has sleeves eons ago; people have been making and remaking that garment over the centuries, and they've been making and remaking crew-neck sweaters -- one incarnation of Og's chestcoverer -- for many, many years. There has to be something more, something distinctive enough that it can be separated from the generic idea of the sweater itself. Now think of Kaffe Fassett's Foolish Virgins jacket. There you have something copyrightable: pictorial patterns, colorwork, unusual and distinctive graphic design that make this more than just a piece of knitted cloth to cover your body.

What this means is that certain knitted garments -- probably most knitted garments -- aren't distinctive enough, don't have some "pictorial or graphic" feature that can be separated from the garment itself and therefore protected by copyright.

You, clever ones, can see how quickly this gets murky. No one can copyright the general idea of a crewneck sweater with ribbed neckband and cuffs. But how much more does it take to make your sweater distinctive enough to be copyright-able? Stripes? Probably not distinctive enough. Fair isle pattern by the Scottish designer who Shall Not Be Named? Kid's sweater with an intarsia kitty cat on it? Norwegian snowflake pattern? What if the snowflake pattern has been used by folk knitters for ten generations? Who knows? (And when you're talking about objects other than garments, it gets even more unclear. Is a stuffed toy bear a "sculpture," a piece of plush art?)

This is more than an esoteric exercise, though. If your sweater design isn't copyrightable, then you don't have a claim for copyright infringement. So if you're making a crewneck sweater with no unusual pictorial features, there's some reason to suggest that, heck, nothing about that is distinctive enough to merit protection under US copyright law, so make as many as you want and sell them to whoever'll buy them at the local flea market.

But wait. You know it's not quite that simple. Designers have a back-up argument, an argument that's based on contract law, instead of copyright law. Whenever you buy or sell something, it's technically a contract. I agree to give you $5 and you agree to give me a knitting pattern in return for the money. Contract. The parties are free to impose conditions on their contract. You can say "I will only sell to people who pay me in cash." If I don't have cash, you can say, "No sale." Payment in cash is a term of the contract.

Designers will argue that a term of their agreement to sell the pattern is your agreement that you will only use the pattern to make things for personal use, and that they won't sell it to you if you don't agree that you will refrain from making items for resale. They will say that the language at the bottom of the pattern sets out this condition and that you agree to it when you hand over your $5. If you then go and make 1,000 cucumber-shaped baby hats to sell at your church bizarre bazaar, you've violated that condition of the sale. This argument isn't without its own problems: you might say "Well, I never agreed to that" or "contract of adhesion!"* But who knows what the answer will be if you ever took it to court?

I have a lot of sympathy for the notion that a designer should have the legal right to control mass production of a garment she's created. But the law isn't based on sympathy, and I have a hard time finding a solid basis in copyright law for a claim that the "not to be knitted for resale" language bars you from doing so. It seems to me that the question has more to do with the licensing issue than copyright, and quite frankly, I just don't know what the answer is. Other people who've addressed this problem have come to different conclusions; for example, Jen Tocker's copyright discussion, linked somewhere in my comments, states that you can't sell items made from copyrighted patterns but her footnotes only attribute that to a person's name, not any legal case or statute. The Girl From Auntie is more convinced by the implied license argument than I am. My husband, on the other hand, notes that courts have expressed hostility to the "bootstrapping" of a licensing argument onto what is primarily a copyright dispute, reasoning that contract law shouldn't be used to create some kind of intellectual property protection that copyright law refuses to make, that it's kind of a cheat. (He started talking about belt buckle cases, in which belt buckle designs that looked like snakes were protected by copyright, being artistic or distinctive enough, but amorphous blobby ones were not. Love him as I do, I nevertheless chose not to go to Decorative Belt Buckle Land.)

Now, don't any of you go and say "I can make this and sell it because the Go-Knit-In-Your-Hat-Lady says it's okay." I'm not saying that. I'm saying that this is a murky area of the law and I don't know what the answer is. Pretty much every knitting designer would take the position that their designs are NOT to be knitted for resale, absent specific permission from them or the copyright holder (if it isn't them). Given the law's uncertainty, and given what seems to be the right thing to do, the safest way to deal with the situation is to ask the person or company who owns the copyright for permission. Govern yourselves accordingly.

Finally, Karlie asks whether patterns are, to borrow a contact lens phrase, "single use": in other words, can she keep making a garment over and over once she's purchased the pattern (for her own personal use)? I think that's a resounding yes. I can think of no legal basis for restricting the owner of a pattern from making as many versions of the garment as she wants, so long as the pattern was legally obtained in the first place.

*A contract that is so one-sided, it isn't enforceable.

Fiber Stuff

I did finish the Jamaica sweater. Here's a photo as I was sewing in the last few ends. I've been having trouble getting Blogger to load photos in last day or so; sometimes I can and sometimes I can't. I had to try about ten times over two days to get this to load:

And here's some new selections being listed on Etsy today: both are about 875 yds of laceweight merino, enough for, say, the Fiber Trends River Scarf, or Estonian Garden Wrap [you'll have to buy your own copies of them; they are not included as I am not an authorized Fiber Trends retailer, unlike, say, Rosie's Yarn Cellar, who will charge you only actual postage if you order patterns from them).

I'm going to be dyeing some more larger batches of laceweight yarn (like the blue one, which sold so fast!). I'll also do some heavier weights, like DK, but I'm still working out issues like finding good suppliers, so keep checking back. I'll put updates at the end of my blog posts, and that way, if you are sick of hearing about my dyeing escapades, you can just stop reading.


I want to say thank you to all of you (especially Mindy) who're being so supportive of my Black Bunny Fibers endeavor. I really value all the kind words you've sent my way about dyeing and the blog. I take a great deal of satisfaction in the blog, and it really touches me to know that there are other fanatical knitters out there who like to read it. I'm going to go dab my moist eyes with a tissue now and get back to the dyepot.


Sherry W said...

Hey Carol, I saw your shelf at Rosie's last night and your yarn looks very professional in its tight little cheeses!

Can you please make a sidebar link to your Etsy shop? I'm sure to buy something in the next couple weeks (perhaps some of that roving when I stop scaring my cat with my new drop spindle).

Carol said...

Thank you! Actually, there is one, if you scroll down past "Links" and "Contact Me"...

mamaloo said...

Carol, I'm a huge fan of yarn porn, you know the posts where we talk about what we're knitting and stashing and dreaming of. But,ut issues around knitting: legalities and pricing, really stimulate my brain. And we all know that's where sex really happens for gals!

OK, I'm only kidding a little.

Honestly, I crave more writing like this. Knitting is such a sensual kind of pursuit, my brain starts to dry up a little and your posts always quench it's thirst.

Thank you for another wonderful discussion!

Carol said...

My brain and my nether regions thank you.

I think.

Anonymous said...

Love the blog--I hope to vist the shop soon and someday get started on a lace shawl.

Not a lawyer, don't play one on TV, but I thought I would jump into this discussion: It would seem to me that legal protections for garmet design were given up years ago. The entire fashion industry relies heavily on homage to what came before it. Likewise, not much is done about the Oscar knockoffs that show up in stores three weeks after the show. As you said, the concept of clothing--shirts, pants, skirts, etc.--has been done and redone in every way previously.

That said, I have always (and take crap for it) said no when friends want to copy patterns I have bought, copy book sections, offer me patterns they have and I can not get, and in general reproducing any artistic materials without compensating the artist.

Many of my grad-student friends argue with me about downloading music--their position is that the artist doesn't get the money. The same could be said for a knit pattern designer. I suspect they get paid by the magazine the same amount regardless of the number of copies sold. But this excuse doesn't consider the very real and valuable service that is provided by the record companies, distributors, etc. These are real people's jobs folks--people like you and I. If you take something for free, someone is paying for it. Please try to understand there are several parts to our economy that real lives depend on.

Now back to that orange--excellent color....

MsAmpuTeeHee said...

Leave it to TheAmpuT to "stump" TheLawyer (ba-da--bump!..I know, dont quit my day job).

As I was reading and drinking my morning brew, I had this hilarious mental image of Og wandering the plains, hunting and gathering, wearing his Foolish Virgins Jacket. hahaha.

Thanks for replying to this. I've been wondering. Not because I want to knit for resale, but because it actually really irks me to see $140 scarves for sale when I know for a fact where the pattern came from (and who is no longer benefitting from their creative genius).

Anonymous said...

Wish I could be supportive - but I'm in UK and you don't send here....

Anonymous said...

I adore your writing. And thank you for writing about this.

I may well be more convinced by the implied licence agreement than you are, but really, it depends on what the facts of each individual case. And heck, I'd rather rely on an express licence (which I use for PDF downloads).

Licences can be abused by the rightsholder, but it's difficult to say when it becomes anticompetitive or otherwise illegal to prevent a purchaser from engaging in an activity that copyright law might otherwise allow. Of course, the entertainment industry knows how to solve this whole problem. If statute doesn't explicitly provide the rights you want, lobby until it does.

Anonymous said...

This copyright stuff is enough to make your head spin! Here's one for you- probably not documented anywhere, but here goes. I buy your top, spin it up, and sell it as hand-spun sock yarn. Probably not illegal, but would you mind? I would acknowlege you as the dyer, but its probably done out there with no credit given.

Silver sage...silver sage... silver sage...

(and don't go getting mushy while I'm pms-y. Sheesh.)

Anonymous said...

I LOVE the Jamaica sweater - you may have already said, but where can I find this pattern? I looked on Rosie's, but didn't see it.

Sherry W said...

whoops, sorry Carol. So you don't think I'm that dumb, for some reason that part of your sidebar wasn't visable viewing through the RSS feed/Live bookmarks that I use. Darn technology!

Rana said...

Great explanation!

I'm feeling a bit stupid about one thing, though -- what is the difference between "for sale" and "for resale"?

One thing that seems implied by the latter language is "selling for the purpose of making money" -- since I have trouble imagining a designer getting all bent out of shape if someone knits a sweater for him or herself, wears it a while, decides it's not his or her cup or tea afterward, and eBays it. Does that make sense?

I need to set aside some money for some of that luscious yarn!

Carol said...

Yes, I will ship anywhere if you are willing to pay the postage!
I have to play with Etsy to see if I can get it to accept an international shipping designation without a specific shipping amount since it varies so much from country to country...

I'm not sure about the sale vs. resale distinction; maybe they figure when you buy the yarn it's the sale and if you sell what you've made, it's the resale? Or maybe it's the same thing.

Jamaica pattern will be at Rosie's this weekend, so probably up on the website by early next week.

Valerie said...

Thanks again for the interesting and extremely readable copyright explanation.

I was reading an article on Slate last week about a related issue. Designers are attempting to copyright designs to prevent knock-offs.

The shop yarns look great!

Karlie said...

Thanks for the info! My question seemed kind of silly even to me when I asked it, but I was curious - especially since there are many things (of course, I can't think of any at the moment) that are in fact for single-use only, and you should be paying for any further use.

Marg B said...

Carol - thank you so much for delving into, and explaining, in lovely clear plain understandable English something I have always wondered in relation to knitting patterns and garments made for re-sale. Your blog is a joy to read as each post somehow manages to be both entertaining and highly educative.

Re: the Etsy store - I'm not sure how the invoice system works when someone buys an item but I've seen many items list different postage prices for Canada/Europe/Rest of the World in the body of their description.

Marg B said...

P.S. I love the Jamaica jumper but if I was there in real life I would have an urge to eat it rather than pop it on a child. For some reason it conjurs up images of fair grounds and fairy floss and lollipops and sweets and the like.

Or maybe that is just me

amy! said...

So here's a new twist. I received a Wallace and Gromit pattern that I ordered from eBay over the weekend (and leaving aside my, um, disappointment that I received a photocopy and not the original pattern as I had expected), and inside the pattern, right after listing the gauge and yarns, is a little box that says something like "Wallace and Gromit are trademarks of Blah, you must use the exact Patons yarns and colors specified in the pattern".

Abuse of implied license? Do they come sue me if I decide that I think Wallace looks better in a blue vest?!

Anonymous said...

Well, girly, your cogent post explains how Maie Landra's "Jazz" jacket can show up in a "Jamieson's Shetland Knitting Book" as "Glen Ellyn".
Oh, wait... Glen Ellyn has slits on the sides...

Anonymous said...

I'm home with a migrane (which my lovely husband is not helping playing VERY LOUD music) ANYWAY...I've been catching up on your blog...and I must say I WANT THAT ORANGE YARN!!!!! Is it fingering weight? Is it just merino? Does it have different variantions of orange. Oh holy god do I want that for a scarf. What's the yardage?? yarn.

Anonymous said...

OK....I'm not insane, just slow. I just read the paragraph right above the picture...duh. But gosh...can I please please please please request a second skein of the pumpkin patch lace weight (as in...if you make another one maybe bringing it to the store?)? Please please?

ok...I need to go calm myself down.

Marg B said...

Just to throw a little international perspective that may be relevant here, there is currently a lot of cyber-inches beign written about a Melbourne (Australia) chef who reproduced dishes developed by high-profile American chefs and presented them as his own.

According to the articles, the issue is one of morality, not breach of copyright.

"Kim Weatherall, associate director of the Intellectual Property Institute of Australia and a lecturer in law at Melbourne University, says copyright law protects the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself.

In the classic example she teaches her students, a recipe might be covered by copyright but if someone else makes the pie there is no infringement. "Copyright didn't arise to protect this kind of thing," she says. "Classic copyright material was books, artistic works."

(The above two paragraphs are from an article written by Rachel Gibson published April 1, 2006 in the reputable daily newspaper, The Age, and are reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions of copyright laws and - unlike the Melbourne chef - with full acknowledgment of the source.)

litlnemo said...

In the rubber stamping world there are what they call "angel companies." (A stupid, unobvious name, but there you go.) Angel companies allow you to sell what you make with their stamps. Non-angel companies do not. There are some in-between stages, such as companies that allow you to sell, but you have to send them a free copy, etc. Companies will often state up front what their policy is in an "angel policy."

Perhaps pattern-makers need something like that. For example, I don't really care if someone sells something they made from my pattern, but if they do that, I'd like a credit. Hmm.

Chris said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!