Crochet Patterns, Knitting Patterns and Copyright Law

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What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.


Who can claim copyright?

Copyright protection starts immediately from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright. No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright. It is automatic and use of a copyright notice is not required under U.S. law.


What works are protected?

Copyright protects "original works of authorship" that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. The patterns, step-by-step instructions, charts and accompanying photographs are copyrighted. Any finished product made from a copyrighted pattern, step-by-step instructions, chart, or photograph may also be covered under copyright law.

There is much controversy over the fact that a finished product that you make may be copyrighted. However, there are several reasons why a finished product may still be covered by copyright.

Derivative works are protected by copyright and it is the author's expression that you have reproduced, meaning that the finished product of a copyrighted pattern does not necessarily eliminate the copyright protection. A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.

Additionally, patterns may be sold or provided for free with restrictions on the use of items made from the pattern, extending the copyright to the finished garment. For more information on this aspect of copyright law, read this article by Lance D Reich, an intellectual property rights lawyer; specifically the section titled, "Can I sell or donate items I make from a copyrighted pattern?"

An exception often cited is that copyright protections do not extend to the utilitarian aspects of "useful articles." Even with this exception, any artful authorship that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of the item may be copyrighted.

Many designers publish pattern instructions intending them to be used for personal or charitable purposes only. Therefore, prior to selling any finished product made from a copyrighted pattern, it is recommended to first contact the publisher or designer to request and receive permission to do so, or consult with a qualified intellectual property lawyer. All of the patterns published on Purple Kitty are still under copyright. If there are any restrictions, they are found on the pattern page or can be found at the copyright holder's linked website.


Are free patterns covered under copyright?

Free patterns have the exact same copyright protections as a purchased pattern. Copyright has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the pattern was purchased. To repeat what has been stated above: all patterns, step-by-step instructions, charts and accompanying photographs are copyrighted.


How could we ever create something new?

Copyright law doesn't cover ideas or techniques, it only protects the particular way an idea is expressed. As long as you do not copy another designer's work, you may use a similar idea or the same techniques to create something new and unique. In a nutshell, you can use an underlying idea or technique, but you cannot copy someone else's unique way of expressing that idea or technique. If you are interested in designing and have further questions, it is always best to first contact a qualified intellectual property lawyer for guidance.


What isn't protected by copyright any longer?

Vintage patterns that have passed into the public domain are no longer protected by copyright. When a work has passed into the public domain, you are free to do whatever you would like to do with it - copy it, sell it, make finished items from it and sell them - whatever your heart desires. There are a plethora of patterns that have passed into the public domain. Go crazy! The only limitation for patterns in the public domain is your imagination. All of the patterns published on Free Vintage Crochet and Free Vintage Knitting have passed into the public domain and are no longer protected by copyright.


Public Domain? What does that mean?

A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone. The following reasons are why a work would not be protected:

  1. The term of copyright for the work has expired;
  2. The author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright; or
  3. The work is a work of the U.S. Government.


How do I know when something is in the public domain?

In the United States:

  1. Any published works copyrighted prior to 1923 are in the public domain.
  2. Works published from 1923 to 1963 are in the public domain if the copyright was not renewed. To research whether or not a publication has had the copyright renewed, please see these articles on How to Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed and Copyright Research.

For works published with notice from 1964 to 1977, copyright protection covered 28 years with an automatic extension of 67 years. Therefore, anything published in 1964 will not pass into the public domain until 2059, so forget about it.

Works published without notice from 1978 to March 1, 1989 (the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act) retained copyright only if an effort to correct the omission of notice was made within five years. If this notice was not made, these works are currently in the public domain since works published without notice prior to 1989 passed into the public domain under the 1909 copyright act.

Anything created since 1989, whether published or not, with or without notice, is covered by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years. Too many years to wait for these to pass into the public domain. Respect the copyright and contact the publisher/designer if you want to use them commercially or copy them. To do otherwise is illegal and would result in copyright infringement.

More information can be found at the United States Copyright Office website, or you can buy the following books which I've found to be invaluable when it's been necessary for me to research copyright law:

The information provided pertains to U.S. Copyright law only. It is important to note that copyright varies from country to country.

 

Updated: 2/7/13