Wednesday, April 9, 2008

something serious

I want to write about something serious which has been going around the crafty blogs lately. It's a difficult and delicate subject. I definitely don't want to insult anyone, but I do want to air my ideas about designer originality and copyrights.

I make a living by selling my knitting patterns and toys. It's not very much money, certainly not enough to use legal means to protect my copyrights if someone decides to use my designs without permission. I think most independent designers are in the same position, and we rely on the honesty of others to prevent them from copying our ideas.

Not long after I started designing my patterns, I discovered toys made by a lovely woman in the UK. She is the woman behind the much adored Little Cotton Rabbits. By some strange coincidence, our toys had a resemblance to each other. I immediately approached her about this, explaining that I hadn't seen her toys until that moment, and had never intentionally designed mine to be similar to hers. Fortunately she believed me, and was very gracious and understanding. Since that time I have tried very hard to design my toys in my own unique style, and avoided any ideas that would make my toys look similar to hers.

There are a small number of people whom I have given permission to sell toys made from my designs. I decided early on that I don't have nearly enough time to knit toys for everyone who asks, so having a few collaborators would take some pressure off me. These people have been making the toys in their own unique styles, and credit me as the original designer of the pattern, so I am quite happy with the situation.

Now comes the difficult part. Julie Williams contacted me recently because she was concerned that she had seen other people selling toys made from my patterns. I reassured her about my arrangements, and she was very understanding again. But she also mentioned something which I found quite bothersome. It seems that some people have been modifying my patterns so the toys look more like her designs than mine. We all know that imitation can be flattery. While there is nothing wrong with this if the toy is for your own personal enjoyment, selling copies of her toys is against her copyrights.

I don't want to take up arms against whoever those people might have been. Maybe they didn't realize what they had done. Hopefully there are enough honest people out there that we designers won't have to worry about this stuff too often.

If you want to start a little business selling toys (or anything crafty) there's no need to borrow someone else's ideas. Everyone is different, and sees the world in a unique way. We all have our own style. Plus, the world is full of inspiration and beauty, just waiting for you to stop and notice. If you need to learn new skills so you can someday create your own designs, then learn from the best designers you can find. Then take that inspiration, your new skills, and your own style, and make something unique. Children do this all the time! I guess some of us just forget how easy it can be when you do it with joy and energy and honesty.

16 comments:

Allison said...

Not to contradict your point about people finding their own creativity and inspirations, but ...

I'm not actually sure that there is anything in copyright to control what people do with the results of a pattern. In my understanding, what copyright covers is what they do with the pattern itself (ie. they can't print copies of the pattern to sell).

Barbara Prime said...

Allison: You're exactly right. The point I was trying to make was more about respecting another designer's unique style when you go to make things to sell. It really is a difficult subject, and not one I know much about. But having these discussions is a good start.

Barbara Prime said...

I forgot to say that while Julie Williams has endorsed me as a designer of cute toys that are similar to hers, I don't think she intended for people to use my patterns to make copies of her toys to sell. She does have some sort of Creative Commons license for her designs. I just don't want this all to get blown out of proportion. I understand there are many equally valid viewpoints on copyright issues.

paphos-sk said...

Copyright *is* an important issue. I think it is good that you raised the topic.
So I have an insight to offer:
I am a great fan of Mary Engelbreit's work. Some time ago I noticed a style of ceramics being sold locally (although imported from the US) that wasn't Mary's work but sure fooled me. Sooo, I took jpegs and e-mailed them along with the artist's details to a 'contact us' link on Mary's website.
They very kindly acknowledged my point and said that this type of infringement is a problem. However, because many elements of a given pattern are already in the public domain (eg. black and white squares around artwork, the flower style with circles, the particular colour combination and design element, etc.) it has to be an absolute blatant copy to be a copyright infringement.

Lastly, I think when people 'copy' another artist's style, it just about always comes off second-best because that creative frisson is missing. Not that such a thing is so comforting. It means someone else is benefiting financially from your efforts. So I think you've raised a really valid point and hopefully the great majority of craft/art sales are of truly original work.

Jacqui said...

Barbara, when I bought your patterns I thought they were so cute that I would knit one for all my friends. When I knit them I find they take on a personality of their own and I adapt the pattern to suit the idea that comes to mind. Your patterns are the inspiration.

You have made a good point about those who would copy original designs and gain from it.

Unfortunately, after knitting these cute little toys I find I am completely unable to part with them. Any of them!

Mr. Icon said...

@allison:

Likeness is covered by copyright. If someone makes a toy that closely resembles someone else's character, then it can be considered copyright infringement, if it can be proven to be a clearly derived work. E.g. see this article.

However, just making a toy from a pattern doesn't necessarily mean you're automatically infringing -- patterns are more like cooking recipes. Most knitters will add a lot of stuff of their own to make a toy uniquely theirs. There is a fine and fairly vague line that has to be crossed to be considered an infringement on "likeness."

sharon said...

it's an interesting discussion. I've seen a number of times. different knitted items (even in yarn stores) for sale and I know that some of the patterns are free and therefore the items are not supposed to be sold for profit. Unfortunately, I also can see some people's point that they have paid for a pattern and therefore what they make from it belongs to them. From what I have seen online, provided the design is not exactly the same as someone else's, it can become owned by someone else. In regards to your work and Julie's being similar, yes they are, however I have a book with knitted softies in it here, that bears a striking resemblance too. Julie's patterns are not published, and therefore if someone adapts your pattern to make it look more like Julie's then there isn't much that can be done - it is their 'right' to use the pattern they bought to make what they please. I would have to agree with paphos-k in that they are only 'copies' and not the same as the original. Unless they are marketing them as 'little cotton rabbits' or one of your own softies, I would imagine there is little that can be done. On the other hand - I can understand your frustration with the fact that they are selling this when they didn't design it.

Allison said...

mr.icon: Likeness is covered for the work of art itself, but when you are selling a pattern, it falls into the category of a recipe (unless you are actually only licensing the pattern, which seems to be common practice amongst those giving patterns away for free).

The link Barbara included is a slightly different issue because the person selling the items from the pattern appears to be claiming to have *designed* them.

Allison said...

The comment from my D (who doesn't make comments on blogs): If you do not want people to sell things they make from your pattern, you need to put this restriction ON the pattern itself and in the listing for the pattern where you are selling it.

Also, with regard to the specific situation of people modifying your pattern to make toys that look like Julie's, that's where the "likeness" rights come up. But that is an issue with people selling toys that look like hers. AFAIK, nothing illegal has happened with regard to your patterns.

He also dug up this helpful link:
http://www.knitty.com/issuefall03/FEATcopyright.html

julie said...

Hi Barbara. Thanks for your post and the kind words. Copyright is definitely a highly debated issue! I agree that the issue is with copying the exact look of a person's work. Certainly being inspired by someone's designs to make something unique of your own is all part of the creative process and there is nothing wrong with that at all but directly copying isn't really about being creative. Anyway, thanks again. Best wishes, Julie

Anonymous said...
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trashalou said...

Allison, I think you will fiind it is referred to as Intellectual Property Rights and means that the ideas behind the pattern still belong to the creator. If a licencsing agreement is reached about the pattern and its use the IPR remains with the originator.

Allison said...

trashalou: Absolutely Barbara retains copyright of her pattern, but if she sells it without listing any restrictions on use (ie. she does not just LICENSE the pattern), then I believe it's covered by contract law and in the absence of any prior agreement about what you do with the things you make from the pattern/recipe the person is free to sell them. They could never claim they DESIGNED the toys, or sell copies of the pattern, or even sell modified copies of the pattern. But unless Barbara has a note on the pattern saying "Not for commercial use" or something, then they are perfectly free to sell them.

It's a tricky mire, that personally, I wouldn't want to enter. If I was a good enough knitter to be selling things, I don't see why I wouldn't also want to come up with my own design that was uniquely my voice.

Raynor said...

Anonymous if you must know i am the owner of jellybums and if you actually contacted myself or Barbra privately you would know that i have actually already contacted Barbra via ravelry to ask for her permission to sell any toys that i created from her patterns. I know that there is a lot talk about copyright and therefore had the decency to ask Barbara's permission before hand which she kindly granted me so i would apprecite it if i wasnt tarneshed with the same brush as those who have blatently copied Julies toys and passed them off as their own design.
I don't want this to cause arguements on Barbara's blog as she is a lovely lady but i would have appreciated it if you had contacted me before you somewhat implied i was stealing other peoples designs.

Barbara Prime said...

Raynor: I'm very sorry this mistake wasn't corrected earlier. Now everyone knows you had my permission, and hopefully you will forgive my tardiness in deleting that anonymous comment.

Raynor said...

Thanks for that Barbara i just thought it was a bit rude that someone implied i was doing something wrong without knowing all the facts first. Don't get yourself down about this whole copyright thing, we need you to stay in your happy knitting land.