Saturday, July 30, 2011

Copyright and the home sewing business

I have been reading a lot about copyright issues lately so I have decided to blog a bit about what I know.  Now, first of all, I am not an attorney.  So, don't quote me or use me as your legal defense!  Secondly, I am a home sewist who likes to sell a bit of sewing to others and I have researched this as much as time allows.  So, I feel like I have something useful to share.

So, what is copyright?   Princeton's Wordnet defines it as "a document granting exclusive right to publish and sell literary or musical or artistic work."  Now, what this means with a pattern is that, if you have it copyrighted, you have legal right to the pattern itself.  Only you can sell and publish that copyrighted item.  But, with sewing and knitting patterns, what does this mean for the article you create from said pattern?  Technically, in the United States, a copyright does not give you control over the articles made from your pattern.  Many people who create patterns think that it does and they will even list on their pattern that they do not give you the right to sell anything you create from it.  But, they are wrong.  And sometimes they will sell licenses for you to make their products, but, according to what I  have read, they don't actually have a legal footing on that one, either!

So, how do I know all of this?  Well, first of all, there is an interesting website called Tabberone and they have a great deal of information online about all of this.  They have a page for copyright definitions.    From their page on patterns:

We cannot locate a single federal lawsuit that went to trial where someone has been sued over the use of a pattern. Consider the millions of patterns that have been sold in the last sixity years plus and not one lawsuit? It certainly cannot be because purchasers are strictly following the demands of the pattern manufacturers. Patterns manufacturers do not have the legal right to make many of the demands that they make. Of the major pattern companies, Simplicity, Butterick, McCalls and Vogue, not one has posted on their web sites anything remotely concerning customer limitations on the use of their patterns. Why do you suppose that is? They know they cannot legally restrict the use but they will tell you differently if you email them. The pattern companies are in the business of selling patterns and the great majority of them routinely lie about the use of those patterns.

Now, doesn't that make sense?

A pattern can be a template, or set of templates, for manufacturing an item, be it a bird house or a dress. Templates are not copyrightable. A pattern can also be drawings accompanied by instructions for knitting, crocheting or quilting. A method or procedure is not copyrightable. While the drawings themselves could possibly qualify for copyright protection, the actual instructions are not copyrightable. The only other aspect of patterns that could possibly qualify for copyright protection would be the artwork and that would only be if its intrinsic properties allowed it to be separable from the design, which very, very few designs can do. And to be enforced a copyright almost always must be registered.

Now, that makes even more sense!  And, according to Tabborone, pattern makers are lying if they try to tell you that you cannot sell something you make from their pattern.  

Now, I know that I, as a home sewist, would be very scared if Amy Butler or Ottobre or some other company sent their lawyers to call on me to tell me to stop selling items made from their patterns.  I purposely do not sell items I make from those patterns.  But, I do find it annoying that they try to bully people into buying with these lies that you are not supposed to do it!   And I wanted to share what I know with you.  

A few other items of interest learned from Tabborone:  

You can sell anything you want using licensed, character fabric. Once you buy the fabric, it is yours to do with what you please.  Tabborone has more information on legal actions about that on their site.  

 Cottage licenses are total bunk.  They are just a way for the pattern maker to make more money.  You don't need to buy one.  They are not legally required for you to use the pattern in your cottage business.

Knowledge is power!  Have a look around the Tabborone website. It is incredible!  They have tons of legal citings and definitions. It is a great resource. 

Happy Sewing!


  1. Thank you. This was a very interesting topic of discussion. I have read a lot about it too. I completely agree with what you are saying.
    Kinder Kouture

  2. Thanks Jeanine!

    So, a small update. From what I read after I posted this, you can actually use a pattern from a maker who does not want you to, like Ottobre, but you just cannot mention their name. You can make a dress from an Ottobre pattern but don't sell it as an Ottobre pattern. Ottobre can limit your use of their name, but not your use of their pattern. Once you buy the pattern, it is yours to use. That, at least, is the legal POV.

  3. So if you can use a licensed character fabric to sell an item, by that same token you should be able to use any fabric you buy to sell something? Right? I've been told in a quilting store at one time that I wasn't allowed to sell something I made with Amy Butler fabric (and I believe it also said "not for items to be sold" or some such nonsense on the selvage). Have you ever heard of this?

  4. Yes, I have heard of the Amy Butler thing and again that store is wrong. You can sell anything made with Amy Butler fabric. I believe Amy's website now reflects this fact.

  5. Great post! Here is an interesting talk given by Johanna Blakley regarding copyrights and fashion:

  6. Oh what an interesting post Kathy, I'm glad you found this!! I totally agree with you I think pattern makers who do not allow selling of clothing made from their patterns or worse those who asked us to buy expensive licenses for each single item we sew to sell are just out to make more money out of us (not to mention the pattern itself is quite expensive)...they are not helping small time sewists at all I think...

  7. In European Union copyright laws are different than in USA and that is why we here in Ottobre are printing our copyright markings on the magazines and pattern sheets. To protect our immaterial rights.

    If the copyrights really are like you told: who buys the pattern owns it, doesn't that mean any company anywhere in the world, could just buy our magazine and start mass production with our patterns?

    Sounds a bit unfair to me as a designer and a small company owner.

    I'm very happy to find this discussion and to talk about this matter. I just feel a bit confused to be used as an living example of exploitation.

    We are a very modest family company, and just wanted to design and publish our patterns to help people sewing fancy clothes for their kids, not to be a bone of contention.

    I never imagine sending any lawyers anywhere (except my DH to buy some milk and bread for our kids), that just isn't the way things works here in Europe.

    Yours very faithfully,

    Tuula Hepola
    OTTOBRE design

  8. Thank you for posting this, Kathy!
    I have been researching about this and it was quite upsetting to me that if i wanted to sell a garment made with Oliver&s pattern, i HAVE to contact her, pay her $6 PER GARMENT. Can you imagine how much money she will be making? It's crazy! NON SENSE.
    I discussed this over FB as well, and a friend said "A farmer puts a whole lot more work and time into growing food than any pattern designer will ever put into a pattern. Does that mean that if a farmer put restrictions on what you can do with the food you buy from them that it's okay? Are you going to feel honor bound to follow their "rules"? I, for one, absolutely would NOT. Once you decide to sell a product you have to be willing to up control of what the buyer does with the product. You've now sold it, and it doesn't belong to you."
    I do respect the fact of what Tuula said "could just buy our magazine and start mass production with our patterns?" BUT we are not talking about mass production. We are talking about small business owners(mostly STAY/WORK AT HOME MOMS) who want to make a little to replace what has been invested.
    Thankfully, many pattern makers state that you CAN sew garments from their pattern in a small scale as long as you honour their work, noting that the garment was made using their pattern. Now that i have NO PROBLEM. I, of course, will like to honour their wishes. :)