Copyright Basics for Fiber Artists

by | Dec 3, 2019 | Fiber Arts

As a maker, it is important to understand copyright law. In this article I am going to give you the copyright basics for law in the United States. My goal is to give you a baseline understanding, so you can engage in conversations over copyright intelligently.

Using patterns, photos, or any creative works, that you did not make or buy could cost you thousands of dollars and a huge headache. If you knowing and willfully use copyrighted work with out express permission it could cost you up to $150k in damages per violation. Understanding the law behind copyright is no longer a luxury when infringement is just two right-clicks away.

NOTE: I am NOT a lawyer. This article only covers copyright basics, and does not cover all the nuances involved in US copyright law. If you have a legal question about copyright and what you or someone else can and cannot use, please seek legal council.

What is Copyright?

Whenever an individual creates a piece of work they, as the author, are the sole owners of that work. The moment it is created it is copyrighted and the author is the only individual who can legally reproduce, distribute, or display that work. Copyright does have limits, protected works include¹:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works (photographs & illustrations)
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

That means that everything that you have created from your own head: from your doodles when you were in grade school to the tweet you composed late last night is all protected by copyright. The purpose of copyright is to protect artists and creatives who make their living on creative works.

According to the definitions provided by the copyright laws, a knitting or crochet pattern falls under a “literary work” and/or “pictorial, graphic work.”

You do NOT have to “register” a work for it to be copyrighted. The moment it is created it is yours. However, if you ever go to court, establishing a timeline of creation is important to protect yourself.

You have the right to control how your work is used and distributed. By the same token, you are legally required to respect other individual’s copyright by getting express permission to use their work.


Copyright Doesn’t Last Forever

The current copyright laws protects published works for the author’s life, plus 70 years². So If you wrote a book and lived to be 100 in 2088, your book would be copyrighted until 2158. The original copyright act of 1790 was only 14 years, with no renewals. Since then every 50 years or so a new extension has been added.

The most controversial and drastic extension was the 1998 Sonny Bono Extension which added 20 years to the copyright terms. The Sonny Bono Extension has been dubbed by media as the Mickey Mouse extension, because it was advocated by the Disney family along with other high powered families keen to protect their assets from being released into public domain. The 1998 extension prevented works such as Steam Boat WillieGone with the Wind, and Superman from being released.


Fair Use

Fair Use is a term used when copyrighted works are used without permission, but is not infringement.

Fair Use is the most ambiguous part of copyright. These cases are ruled in courts on a case by case basis and are highly subjective. There are four main questions that used to determine what is fair use:

  1. What is the purpose of recreating/reusing the original work?
  2. Is it a fact based or highly creative work?
  3. How much of the original work was used?
  4. How is the original creator impacted financially?

Non-profit and educational uses are given a lot more latitude than commercial and for-profit uses.

You can read all about United States Fair use and other copyright basics here: This page is kept up to date with the latest legal precedents. 


Public Domain

Any work in the public domain may be reproduced, remixed, altered, printed, distributed, etc. without permission from the author. Work in the public domain is considered to be owned by the public. Examples of work in the public domain include: Grimm Brother Fairytales, Shakespeare, and Huckleberry Finn.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons was founded in 2001 in an effort to allow creatives to grant limited or unlimited use licenses of their work to the public. It has grown into a standard for identifying what you can and can’t use. From their website:

The idea of universal access to research, education, and culture is made possible by the Internet, but our legal and social systems don’t always allow that idea to be realized. Copyright was created long before the emergence of the Internet, and can make it hard to legally perform actions we take for granted on the network: copy, paste, edit source, and post to the Web. The default setting of copyright law requires all of these actions to have explicit permission, granted in advance, whether you’re an artist, teacher, scientist, librarian, policymaker, or just a regular user. To achieve the vision of universal access, someone needed to provide a free, public, and standardized infrastructure that creates a balance between the reality of the Internet and the reality of copyright laws. That someone is Creative Commons.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons Licenses:


Transferring Ownership

Ownership of a copyright may be transferred. Owners may also grant limited use rights. If you read the fine print of stock photography sites you will find that most of them have restrictions of use and do not allow redistribution of purchased images and illustrations.

It is also common for businesses and universities to claim ownership of the work you do for them. In this case anything that you write or create for your employer is not owned by you, but by the business that employs you.

Works for Hire

Many freelancers act as “works for hire”. This means that the work that is done by the freelancers is owned and copyrighted by the business, even though the business did not actually create the work.

When hiring creatives it is important to understand what is being paid for. If a freelancer is not working under “works for hire” they have the right to reuse the work that they created. This is especially important when it comes to logos. It should always be clear who will be the final owner.


Copyright Basics Summary

If you are unsure, and didn’t make it yourself, don’t use it.

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