Regularly, I get asked questions about copyright. Copyright play a pretty large part in design, especially when you start freelance publishing with magazines. Some of the rules are very black and white. Some are a little more gray — I’ll do my best to break it down a little for you.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume that you are just starting out as a designer. I’m also NOT going to talk about making things with licenses and intellectual property (like Disney characters), because that is a whole other ballgame.
What Rights Do I Really Own?
So, here is where you have to realize that your opinion of what is “yours” needs to be black and white. Under copyright law, you own:
- The EXACT written WORDS of your pattern.
- The photos of your work that were published with the pattern, if you took them. (If you did not take them, they belong to the photographer.)
- Your byline (By Kati Brown or By Hooked by Kati)
You DO NOT own:
- The idea/concept of a certain hat, scarf, etc.
- The stitch pattern you use to create something, ie. Suzette stitch, Crocodile stitch, etc.
- The finished product produced by someone using your pattern.
(I know, you hate that last one, but it’s true.)
Types of Rights
When you choose to sell a pattern to a magazine, you sell them the rights to it. This means that, according to the contract you sign, they buy the control of the pattern. This is what selling a pattern really is, so remember that. Rights vary from publisher to publisher, so READ YOUR WHOLE CONTRACT.
Exclusive rights to a pattern mean that it has not been and will not be published anywhere else, ever. This pattern is now the property of the magazine (with your byline, of course), but you can’t publish it again anywhere.
Non-exclusive rights mean that you are able to sell the pattern again, sometimes even concurrently with the publication. There are a few magazines that offer non-exclusive rights and even let your keep your Etsy listings or blog posts up while the magazine is in circulation.
Limited means just that — some magazines will request the rights to publish your pattern only in their magazine, but only for a specified amount of time, after which you can turn around and re-submit it (to a magazine that takes Non-exclusive patterns) or self-publish it. They want the pattern to be only available in their magazine during the time it is on shelves, but after the next issue is released, you get the rights back.
Unlimited Exclusive Rights
Unlimited exclusive rights allow the magazine to keep the pattern forever, and then to use it in books, on TV shows, wherever they want to print it — forever — and ever.
It sounds scary, but because they want so much from the pattern, they also usually pay much more for those rights, so it can be much more lucrative for the designer. It can also mean your pattern will be seen for much longer than you ever expected. My Road Trip Hooded Scarf, for example, is still very popular more than a year after it was published because the magazine made it available as an instant download, giving me more and more exposure from that one pattern sale.
Poor Man’s Copyright
Planning on self-publishing?
Back when I was freelance writing fiction and submitting it all over the darn place, I used a method of copyright called “The Poor Man’s Copyright.”
In a nutshell, you took the piece you wrote, packed it up in an envelope, sealed it, and mailed it to yourself. When it arrived, you put it away, UNOPENED, in a drawer. It now had this nice, legal, post date on it that could protect you in court should someone steal your work. You could open up that envelope in front of the judge and say. “See! I wrote this and mailed it on THIS DATE and that was well before Billy Bob Doofus published it as his own! HA!”
If you really want to do this with your patterns, go for it. It seems like a waste of postage now, but at the time, it was as foolproof a copyright as I was going to get.
Thanks to the internet, when you publish something now, whether in an Etsy shop or on a blog, there is a set date and time that it appeared on the internet. That date and time — that beautiful moment your first design photo was posted — is your Poor Man’s Copyright.
No one can come along and say they came up with the pattern first because you can PROVE you published it and exactly when (usually even down to the minute!). So, in essence, your work is copyrighted the moment it hits the world wide web. For this reason, I would have no fear about things you sell on Etsy, Ravelry, or on your personal blog. You will win that battle, should it ever occur. It might, but not frequently.
Control Over The Finished Product
Right up front, you do not own the rights to a finished, physical product made by your pattern. By selling the pattern, you exchanged the pattern for money. While the pattern itself remains yours, the work belongs to the artist.
I could go on and on about this. And I do.
If this seems unfair to you, you need to take a step back and a long look at crochet design as an industry. It may seem reasonable for you to control the end product of your design, but you don’t have a legal leg to stand on if you wish to enforce it.
The Gray Area of Copyright
Here’s the kicker. Even if you come up with the most unique, exciting, new way of combining crochet stitches, the truth is that there is something similar out there somewhere. The craft has been around for 200 years, and there are only so many stitches, so it is inevitable that some overlap will occur.
Frustrating? It can be, if you let it.
But part of crochet design (and most any design) is that we ALL get our inspiration from somewhere. So unless you live in a cave and are inventing your crochet patterns without inspiration from the crochet world, you have undoubtedly used a few ideas from others in your work as well.
That’s okay! Copyright protects you from someone else coming along and stealing your PATTERN word for word.
Does it protect the idea? No, not really.
I know, it is super tempting to go off yelling at everyone who “copies” your idea, but as they say, imitation is the best form of flattery.
Your unique work is something you should be proud of, and it has properties that make it better than your competition because YOU designed it. Remind your buyers of those things and promote your work so that they want to buy YOUR messy bun hat pattern, not just any messy bun hat pattern.
Kati is the designer behind Hooked by Kati. With thousands of patterns sold around the world, Kati prides herself in creating innovative, easy-to-follow amigurumi patterns. She has designed for several publications, including Crochet!, Crochet World, Simply Crochet, and I Like Crochet. Kati finds her inspiration in science fiction, video games, and numerous visits to the zoo — all passions she shares with her husband and two boys.