Aug 102007

There was quite a lot of discussion about copyright issues in the comments to my knitted cushion piece; this is an important enough subject that it deserves its own blog posting. Obligatory disclaimer here.

The issue was whether a knitting pattern can be copyrighted. I believe that the complete pattern with all the words can be copyrighted in the same way as all my other postings are copyrighted. If it’s original content that I created, and I haven’t assigned the copyright to anyone else, then I have the copyright. So the main question is, can the straightforward description of the stitches (i.e., the “k1, p1” bit) be copyrighted? Mark claims it can’t, because you can’t copyright the design and stitches. A related issue is whether you can impose licensing conditions on someone making the article described in the pattern (in the case of the cushion I designed, giving attribution).

Traditionally knitting has been about people making variations on known ideas. Elizabeth Zimmerman, one of the knitting gurus, used the word “unvented” to describe techniques that she discovered. She was convinced that someone else had probably discovered the technique long ago, but not written it down, so what she was doing was re-inventing, or “unventing”. She also encouraged people to make variations on patterns, to make things their own. However, there are the legal aspects of copyright to consider. In the US, a knitting pattern falls under the Visual Arts category for copyright as long as it follows the basic rules. Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. In the UK, I assume knitting patterns would fall under the written work category, as it includes instruction manuals (a knitting pattern is arguably an instruction manual). For Canadian law, it’s easier to refer to the web site written by an IPR lawyer. From there I read Section 5(1) of the Copyright Act specifies that copyright subsists in every “original” literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work. So my cushion pattern, since it is original in that sense, does have copyright protection. Including the arrangement of the stitches (or the basic “k1, p1” stuff). The stitch patterns on their own, the modules that I built the cushion pattern out of, which are traditional, aren’t copyrighted, of course. It’s my arrangement of them to form the cushion pattern that is.

The other question is what conditions I can impose on someone who wants to copy the pattern, or make articles from it. In my pattern, I specifically said people shouldn’t copy the pattern, but should link to it instead. And that they can use the pattern to make articles, even for sale, as long as they give me attribution for the pattern. Most free knitting patterns contain the condition that the person not make the article for sale, but I decided I didn’t object to that.

From all my reading, it’s perfectly allowable (note I’m not saying anything about the moral aspects here) to impose such conditions on anyone wishing to copy the pattern or use it to make a cushion. You should not simply assume that because you have permission to make a copy of the sweater or afghan by following the pattern, you also have permission to deal with that work in any way, for example by selling what you made. In the knitting industry, it’s very common for people to say that the resulting article may not be sold, and this is basically a contract that the knitter agrees to in using the pattern.

In fact, the industry norm is that items made from any pattern that the knitter buys or downloads (even free patterns) may only be made for the knitter or as gifts. So in the absence of a copyright notice on the pattern, it could be argued that those would be the implied conditions of use. This is not universally accepted; here’s the starting point to one long discussion I read where this point was argued back and forth. I note, however, that even the person arguing that the knitted articles should be able to be sold also argued that credit should be given to the designer.



I am not a lawyer, I don’t know any lawyers personally who deal with the issue of copyright in knitting, and thus although I have read quite a lot about the subject, any detailed questions you may have should be taken to someone who is properly qualified. And all of this legal stuff does vary with the country/state/province you live in. Most of my reading has been based on Canadian and US law; the laws in other countries may vary considerably. I do hope that people who know more about the subject than I do will comment.

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