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Copyrights and copying is always a hot issue in the needlework industry--and with good reason. One of the most painful things that can happen to you as a designer is to find out that someone is making photocopies of your designs. Certainly the lost sales are important--after all, everyone has bills to pay; but to a designer it is more than the money--it is very painful personally.

Some of the problem is simply that many people have a misunderstandings of what it means to be 'copyrighted'. This page is meant to be a brief summery of copyright law. There are links to the U.S. Copyright Office at the bottom of the page where you will find additional information.

Copyright and patent law is an interesting area-- in its own odd way. It is so important that it was specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Article I, section 8, reads, "The Congress shall have power... to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writing and discoveries." As a result, the federal government (not the states) has control over patents and copyrights. Both patents and copyrights protect "ideas". In general, patents are protection for "inventions"-- new and useful processes, machines, manufactured articles, etc. Copyrights protect books, articles, lectures, music, and photographs.

For basic information on trademarks

What is a Copyright?

Copyright is a legal form of protection  to the creators of “original works of authorship.”  The copyright owner has the exclusive right:

  • To reproduce the work in copies
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly

The copyright owner can give permission to another individual to do any of the above things as the copyright owner sees fit. For example, they can grant one person permission to make copies of a design, but refuse permission to the next person who asks.

An important point to remember is that purchasing a book or pattern does not give the purchaser any of the rights granted to the copyright holder. Another important point is that the copyright owner does not need to say anything about copyrights or copying or anything else on the printed work. The creator of the work has the same exclusive rights with or without any copyright statement.

There are a few limits to the right of the copyright holder. One limit is that the owner of a particular legally produced copyrighted item is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of this item.

How does this apply to cross stitch and other needlework patterns?

Most of the questions fall into two categories: (1) making photocopies of a pattern, and (2) using the pattern to stitch multiple items.

Making photocopies. Legally you can not ever make a copy without the permission of the copyright owner. It doesn't matter what form the copy takes--photocopy, electronic copy, photographic, etc.  It also doesn't matter if you sell the copies or give the copies away for free--you can not make copies.  The copyright owner has the exclusive right to make copies. This even applies to out of print patterns or patterns in magazines. The copyright owner still has the exclusive rights to the design--even if they choose not to offer the design for sale at this time.

Is it all right to make a "working copy" for your own use from a pattern booklet you own? Some stitchers like to make an enlarged copy of designs so they can read it easier. Others will buy the pattern and then make a copy because they find it more convenient to carry with them. Legally you do not have the right to do this without permission from the designer. However,  I don't know of any designer who would refuse permission to enlarge the design because you are unable to use the design as it is printed. Making a photocopy simply because it may be more convenient is another matter. On one hand, designers truly want you to enjoy stitching their designs. So if making a copy somehow makes it easier and more pleasant to stitch, some designers may not have a problem with you doing this (provided, of course, that you purchased to pattern in the first place).

On the other hand, there is the issue of other people seeing you use a photocopied pattern. Simply seeing you using a photocopied design may make someone else think, "If everyone else is using photocopied designs, I might as well do it too." This is something designers would really like to keep from happening. [Of course the other thing this person may be thinking is, "Look at her using a photocopy...she must be too cheap to actually buy the design."]  Also, don't be surprised if you go to a business to make a copy and they refuse to let you use their copier for this. The printing trade magazines have done a lot to publicize cases where stores were sued for allowing their copiers to be used to make illegal copies.

Stitching multiple items of the same design. One thing that is unusual about a needlework pattern is that its intended use is to transfer the printed design into a stitched piece--that is, to create a derivative work. This is unusual because most copyrighted work is only viewed (you read a book, or you look at a picture). So even if it is not stated directly, there is an implied permission granted to create a derivative work. However, the implied permission is that you will use the design to stitch the design for your own personal enjoyment or as a gift. This means the design can not be used to create items that are to be sold or for any other commercial reason.  Without the designers' permission, you can not use their design to make stitched items to sell at craft shows, bazaars, fund-raisers, etc.

There is an interesting exception to the rule extending copyright protection to the stitched product (the derivative works). If the design was so basic as to not be really original, than the printed pattern itself (the page layout, charting, etc.) has copyright protection; but the copyright protection does not extend to the stitched piece. Take the case of a cross stitch chart that contained only the small cabin motif that has been used in samplers for the last two hundred years. The newly charted design would be copyrighted (you would be prohibited from making photocopies of the chart), but the copyright protection would be limited. Other designers could still use this motif in their designs, and a stitcher would not be prohibited from stitching and selling multiple pieces. If the design consisted of the cabin motif PLUS some words, a border, and so on; then the design would be original and would have full copyright protection.

The other two major rights that a copyright holders has--the right to control distribution, and the right to control display--are not normally a problem, but questions can come up. Suppose a store decides to lend or rent pattern books to customers who purchased their materials a the store. Because the copyright holder has the right to control distribution to the public, a designer would be able to stop the store from doing this.

I have not heard of an occasion where a needlework designer exercises their right to control public display, but it is not uncommon for artists in some fields to do so. If the copyright holder is unhappy about the way their work is displayed in public, they can require that the method of display be changed or that the work be removed from public display. This might come up if the artist feels that the way their work is displayed is harming their image or professional reputation.

Common questions about copyrights

Q: How do you get a copyright?
A: Copyright is secured automatically when the work is created. No registration or other action in the U.S. Copyright Office is required to secure a copyright, but in some cases it may be desirable to register with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Q: How long does a copyright last?
A: Work created after January 1, 1978 is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author's life plus an additional 70 years after the author's death. For works made for hire (i.e. work created by a employee of a business) the duration of copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. Works copyrighted before 1978 have a copyright life of up to 95 years.

Q: Does a copyright need to be renewed?
A: No. Under the law in effect before 1978 the copyright lasted for 28 years and then had to be renewed. This is no longer the case.

Q: Is the copyright symbol required?
A: No. For works created after 1989 the copyright symbol is optional.

Q: How do I get an International Copyright?
A: While there is no such thing as an "international copyright", the United States has copyright relations with over 100 countries where the countries agree to honor each other's citizens' copyrights.

Q: How can a designer protect a copyright?
A: A designer can protect their copyrights against unauthorized use by filing a civil lawsuit in Federal district court. Also, U.S. Federal law defines making 10 or more illegal copies valued at over $2,500 retail as a felony, so there is the possibility of criminal prosecution. Does this mean that if you make an illegal copy of a cross stitch design for your own use you will end up in Federal court? No, probably not. It would be too expensive for a designer to sue an individual for an isolated violation. But just because you won't be sued or arrested doesn't make it acceptable. There are countless rules and laws that all of us obey; not because we are afraid of being arrested, but because we know it is the right thing to do. It just isn't worth it to make copies.

Links to the U.S. Copyright Office

Below are some links to the U.S. Copyright Office. They have an excellent web site if you need more information.

The Main page for the U.S. Copyright Office is  http://www.loc.gov/copyright/

Copyright basics from the U.S. Copyright Office is a good summery of copyright law. http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/circs/circ1.html

For more complete coverage try http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/title17/   "Chapter 1:  Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright" being a good starting point  http://www.loc.gov/copyright/title17/92chap1.html


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