Trying to work out the logistics of copyright RE: crafting. This is not legal advice…

…rather, it is me trying to figure out, out loud, what is meant by the differentiation of “technique” and “pattern.”  (Writing helps me get my thoughts in order.)

I should note that I am not an authority on copyright law; I’m just a crafter who has been struggling with the question of what is “right” and “wrong” in regard to the ethics of making jewelry to sell, for years.

I did go to work today, and it wasn’t bad — amazingly, it seems to help me.  Even though I do still struggle with shyness, the social contact seems to benefit me, and I often feel better after I leave than I did before arriving.  At work, one of my co-workers (who had noticed my new collar) asked me if there was a reason I wasn’t selling on Etsy.  I couldn’t…quite…give her a good response!  Though I realize that a lot of it has to do with being a little wigged out over the possibility of unintentional copyright infringement.

Now that I realize more clearly, though, what goes into creating a specific design, the difference between technique and design becomes clearer.  With my last collar design, I realized what in fact was my work (that is, my design), and what I had help in doing…which was just a basic knowledge of sinnets which I had to know (or be taught) in order to construct the beaded straps which helped complete it.  However, the overall message and feel and content of the piece was not contained in that sinnet.

This is not legal advice, but just my current understanding:  Design seems to be something that I create for a specific purpose, with a specific message in mind, with specific materials.  Technique (also possibly more helpfully considered “construction technique”), includes the elements (like beadweaving stitches; parallel this to embroidery stitches [and yes, those two can cross over]) which are used to substantiate the design.  Technique cannot be copyrighted.  Design can.

Design is something difficult to put a finger on before you do it, but after you’ve done it…especially after you’ve done it for years without realizing it — and then you face the possibility of publishing it, and start wondering if someone will mimic your work with no knowledge or understanding of its underlying logic, for monetary gain…it’s perfectly clear.

Generally speaking, designs are sold for personal use:  that is, it may be OK with me if you follow my design to make yourself a collar, but it is not OK with me if you use it for commercial purposes without asking, or thinking of reimbursing, me.  With me, this is largely because I struggled to put that design together, and because a part of myself is invested in that design.  When you follow a pattern, a large part of the work is already done for you.  It would be best to consider them tutorials, though:  a step on the way to gaining the knowledge and skill you need to design your own work (which is, even when simple, immensely more satisfying).

There’s effort that’s gone to in order to choose and combine elements and materials, to fit them to each other, to choose and execute construction techniques, to build a feel and aura and message or concept behind the finished piece, to translate one’s process into words and images that others can understand.  The finished piece is, thus, the result of a set combination of decisions.  If these decisions are replicated without question (sin making the instructions; I doubt anyone would replicate that and think it was all right), the finished product is substantially similar to the original — even if its deeper significance is not grasped.

The more decisions diverge, the less like the original design the piece happens to be; however, if the design is based on an original design by someone else (say, like online Buffy fanfiction is based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; is not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but substantially profits from Buffy’s name recognition and branding, and still follows Buffy’s groundwork — especially if it competes with Buffy for viewers), then the best route to take before entering into an enterprise where substantial profit may be gained from its sale is to consult with the original designer (whom one might helpfully consider a partner for this one item, as they may ask for a cut of your sales in exchange for their labor, which in turn saved you labor) for permission to move ahead.

And I ask myself if it’s clear enough for me, now.  The reason why this isn’t legal advice is that it’s just what I seem to have figured out by myself in the absence of substantial trustworthy help.  Most work I’ve seen has been how to avoid having others replicate one’s own designs, not how to avoid inadvertently replicating the designs of others.  (And yes, two or more people can hold copyrights to the same design, if they originated independently.)

The clearest thing I’ve found is that judgment as to whether penalties apply for the supposed violation of copyright law is a subjective (and complex) human decision and often based on a matter of degree and (possibly) intentionality (such as one case where even a photograph was ripped from someone’s website and used to advertise an off-brand’s goods)…and so the easiest way to avoid violating copyright is to learn a number of basic techniques (and I will say it’s hard to learn these without following instructions, at first:  which then gets confusing [“is this a pattern or just a technique?”]), then with the skills learned and the principles behind why they work becoming clearer, just play around with the beads, cords, threads, wires, etc., as versus following a pattern.

Trust me, it’s much, much more satisfying to build a thing yourself, when you get to the point where you can stand on your own two feet.  But the vast majority of us have to crawl before we can stand.

“Patterns” are usually visible because they make at least one large diversion from popularly disseminated technique instructions (which are visible in a number of places — particularly online, and in print).  They are easy to see after you’ve been around the scene for about 10-15 years, because if you look in a number of beadweaving, wireweaving, bead embroidery, chainmaille, macrame, etc., books and magazines, you’ll see the same basic foundations repeated over and over again (within each craft category, of course; although at times some work, such as micromacrame and wireweaving, do cross over with each other where it comes to aesthetics).

These basic foundations, distilled out of ten or so, “recipes,” I’d say are generally safe to use (I really don’t think anyone can be said to own Brick or Peyote Stitch at this point:  although they do originate with multiple Aboriginal groups…as far as I know, they did originate in different places at different times, not necessarily with contact between those groups, and are part of the basic core of a beadweaver’s repertoire.  The sad fact is, though, that a lot of techniques were transferred long ago from people who didn’t, and don’t, have the power to demand compensation).  The, “recipes,” themselves, though, used in their entirety and without derivation, are something I’d try to keep my own hands off of, where it comes to sales.

An example of a “technique” would be RAW (Right-Angle Weave), Spiral Stitch, or Russian Spiral Stitch, as recently showed up in my Reader.  (Thank you, Sam!  And if you see this, can you tell me if you feel I’m correct or off?  [Granted, I know we’re all finding our own way, but as you do design professionally, I’m thinking you might know more than I do.])  Specific variations, such as CRAW (Cubic Right-Angle Weave), I am uncertain of the legality of using, because the variation (or this variation of it, at least) originated at one specific (recent) time in history.  However, going by the “technique is okay to copy/use” and “design is not okay to copy” rule, I would believe it would be safe to use CRAW in your own designs.  The absolute safest route, would be to write to the person who originated CRAW and ask, though the technique is so widespread now that I wouldn’t think it necessary.

Patterns are fine to play with and learn (particularly technique) from — and by, “pattern,” I mean some kind of set of instructions which differentiates itself in a major way from the techniques which are so known and widespread as to be basically public domain.  But it’s best to get permission before selling items made fully or partially based on or from patterns, for profit — especially if you end up making a lot of money off of a design which didn’t originate with you.  (Of course, some pattern designers will say it’s OK to use their designs for profit, and if they say that, it’s OK, too.)

This can creep up on you, though:  be careful, particularly if someone says, “I want you to make me one like that,” referring to something you’re wearing which you can construct from instructions, but did not design.  Being a beadworker who is trying to be ethical, you let them know you did not design the piece and let them know where they can find the instructions for it.  They don’t want to make it themselves.  They then pay you for your labor (uh oh) and wear it, and other people again want you to make them “one like that.”

I’m not a lawyer, but I believe this is where you can get into trouble, particularly if you end up making a lot of items with very little brainpower exerted in design.  But “design” (and the difference between “design” and “technique”) can be a hard thing to wrap your head around, especially if you haven’t had a lot of art training!  And really especially, if you haven’t been around long enough to know what the basic techniques are, and how to deduce them from the sea of instructions around you.

Using a half-hitch or a petal stitch (embroidery term creeping in there) or Cavandoli knotting (macrame term) is not forbidden, just because you had to learn from someone.  You don’t have to go it alone.  You do, however, have something of an obligation to at least ask the people who taught you if they would like compensation, if you sell something they designed for profit.  If you just used what they taught you but didn’t use it in the exact method of their tutorial, though — and this is not legal advice, but — I’d say you’re probably OK.

And again, this is just what I’ve puzzled out over the period of time during which I’ve been trying to figure out what is safe to sell as my own work.

Helpful commentary, not destructive commentary, is welcome.


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Haru ("Codey") is a third-year Master's student in Library and Information Science, hoping to find a way to fuse their desire to make the world a better place and to finance their art.

8 thoughts on “Trying to work out the logistics of copyright RE: crafting. This is not legal advice…”

  1. Hello, dear! Thanks for the link to my blog post. I followed it over here and was delighted to find such a thoughtful contemplation of the ethics of crafting and how that plays with sharing your work online and giving credit where credit is due. Pattern-writers and designers like myself are always thrilled to see that other beaders are concerned about us and making sure we get the money/name recognition/credit we need to continue designing. Thank you for that. ❤

    On the whole, I would say that you are on the right track with your separation of "technique" (or "stitch") vs pattern (or design). In general, I do have a few basic rules that might help!

    A basic stitch or technique is generally common knowledge and "belongs" to no one. You can find free instructions in the back of every bead magazine and free tutorials all over the internet. Some examples of these stitches would be herringbone, peyote, brick, ladder, square, right-angle-weave, cubic right angle weave, chenille, st. petersburg, netting, and the assorted basic spirals (flat, russian, dutch etc). These are "stitches" and considered fair game.

    When you need to worry about design is when you purchase a pattern (or find a free one) that someone else wrote (that's where copyright comes in to play – the copyright is on the written pattern, not the design), but luckily, most designers will let you know how they feel about you selling the finished piece! My patterns, for instance, all say on the PDF that anything made from my patterns may be sold, provided they are not mass-produced and I am credited as the designer. So, if someone wanted to make one of my patterns and sell it on Etsy, that would be fine! But I would love it if they would mention my name and the name of the pattern in the description box.

    Copying from a photo, where you don't need instructions but just reverse-engineer the piece from the picture, is trickier. Some people say you need to buy the pattern, even if you don't need it. Other just say you should credit the designer when posting the piece online or selling it. It's a moral gray area that I'm not even sure I know my thoughts on, exactly.

    But, holy cow, I wrote a novel in your comment box. I'm so sorry. But I really do think you're on the right track for this and should feel more secure about your art and selling it online. Worst comes to worst, a designer complains and you take down a listing. No harm, no foul. Be brave and keep creating! (Ooh, and you should post more pictures of your work. I would love to see it!)

    1. Oh, geez. I forgot my most useful rule of thumb. If you take a design and tweak it, once it is 75% different, it is considered a new pattern. And that 75% does not include color or bead changes. 🙂

      1. Hello Sam,

        Thank you for such an in-depth response! There is one question that has been coming up for me, if you’d be willing to respond: it relates to something you said in your comment.

        “When you need to worry about design is when you purchase a pattern (or find a free one) that someone else wrote (that’s where copyright comes in to play – the copyright is on the written pattern, not the design), but luckily, most designers will let you know how they feel about you selling the finished piece!”

        I’ve read that the written and published pattern — what’s on paper — is definitely copyrighted. However, I am reading from you here that the design interpreted and built from the pattern — a property of the physical beaded object — is not legally protected, but it *is* considered ethical to respect the designer’s wishes if selling it?

        I’m not sure if this is correct; and it’s a fine point, but it would help clear up a lot for me.

        Don’t worry about writing a lot in the comments — I write tons all the time! Heh. 🙂

        Thank you again!
        — Kaoru

      2. That’s the gist that I’ve gotten from other designers, but I am not 100% certain. I’m also definitely not a copyright lawyer and I find this stuff super confusing. But like, I’ve had an issue before with people making YouTube videos of my patterns. Since they aren’t using my pattern, which is copyrighted, I don’t really have a legal leg to stand on. So, I have to appeal to their sense of personal ethics and explain that their video showing how to make my design is reducing my pattern sales, which I dearly need as a large chunk of my income.Unfortunately, they usually just ignore me.

        So, I think, it is considered unethical to disregard a designer’s wishes about things made from their pattern, if you aren’t copying, selling, or re-distributing their copyrighted written pattern, you aren’t doing anything legally actionable. Does that make more sense?

      3. Ah, the wonderful world of the internet. 😉 I wonder if it’s something you could contact YouTube (not the video author, but the hosting service) about? …though, considering how much stuff is used without permission on YouTube…

        This is a question you don’t have to answer, but I have been thinking about selling handmade jewelry. I actually even started off in Business classes at a community college (and silversmithing classes at another college), which is where I learned that I would have to provide high quality products and services in order to be able to sell my jewelry at a price which would put me above poverty wages. (This is combining knowledge from Microeconomics and Intro to Marketing.) I also realized that I would need to make lots of small items (like earrings) in order to make the jewelry maximally affordable.

        The alternative, I realized, if I wanted to design and construct things and make money from it, is to create patterns and sell them — as glass seed beads are relatively inexpensive, and the skilled labor aspect is what really ups the cost of production. (I live in a place with a high cost of living, high standard of living, and high minimum wage, though capital itself is relatively easy to access.)

        Over the years, I’ve begun to suspect that most handcrafters whom I’ve followed have alternate sources of income or combined income with a spouse. You mentioned making a good amount of your income from pattern sales…not all of it, but…is it enough to live off of? (Right now I’m pursuing training in Library & Information Science so that I will have the extra time and money to do this…)

        Thank you for your time…and yes, this does make sense. It would be nice if people let us know beforehand how to avoid violating a law, instead of just saying, “here’s a law,” right? ^_^;;

      4. Well, I personally cannot live off of the money from my sales. The money I make from Etsy is probably 10% handmade jewelry and 90% pattern sales and that combined money supplements my income, but definitely couldn’t replace it (My income is roughly 2/3’s day job and 1/3 Etsy money). To get that amount, I spend a fair amount of time marketing on social media and I’ve spent about three years building up a following. I maintain an etsy shop, a blog, a facebook account, a pinterest, and a tumblr all under my “wescott jewelry” brand. I just this month took my first “vacation” from my Etsy shop since I opened it in 2013, actually. 😀

        I know maaaaaybe one person who makes her entire income from pattern sales? It’s pretty rough. But it’s great as a source of supplemental income. When I was in college and only working part-time and then a few years later when my husband was laid off, it was the only thing that kept the bills paid.

        But! The great thing about patterns is that once you put in the time to design and write them, you never have to restock, so to say. It’s perpetual pocket money as people discover and purchase the pattern you may have written years ago. I would recommend giving it a shot. 🙂

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