This is not a rant about the legality or illegality of crocheting and selling trademarked (licensed) characters. Selling trademarked characters was holding me back as an artist, a designer, and a business owner, and it could be holding you back too.
So while we could argue all day long about whether or not it is legal, and whether or not big companies will go after people, I want to talk about why artists and designers deserve better than to give away credit to someone else’s ideas.
A quick note: I know there are crochet artists out there who deal exclusively in pop culture fan art, and I am not knocking it. There is room in this business for all kinds. This is just not the business that I have, and, since it comes up often, I feel like I should tell you why it didn’t work for me.
I need to start by saying, yes, I started out my design career making licensed amigurumi. I thought they were what people wanted.
When someone stopped scrolling Facebook long enough to say “I love Harry Potter!” on my post of an adorable niffler doll, I felt validated. But they weren’t complimenting my work – they were complimenting the licensed character they recognized.
People were saying “Wow! You did a great job of copying that thing I love!”
Which is in no way the same as, “I love your art.”
In fact, it’s not even close.
Why I Stopped Crocheting Trademarked Characters
In hindsight, I think the reason I sold trademarked characters at all was because I was not yet confident in my abilities, both as an artist and as a designer.
It was an easy way to avoid having my ideas or my creativity rejected.
After all, every reaction I got to a licensed character was a positive one – it was almost always a smile at the moment of recognition, whether or not they purchased the item. So what if I made something from my mind and it got no looks at all, or worse, people thought it was ugly!?
Still, I started wanting people to remember me. In my gut, I wanted to be more unique to my customers.
I tweeked patterns to make my characters look a little different so that they would stand out, and in the process, learned a lot about amigurumi construction.
Then, I got up the guts to make things people had never seen before.
I made a guinea pig and I added a unicorn horn. Then wings. Guineacorn and Pigasus were born! I had so much fun with these little guys!
At my next craft fair, I didn’t make as many of my typical licensed bestsellers – I filled a bin with guineacorns and pigasus instead.
They sold out in only a few hours, and I was on cloud nine. The feeling was unlike it ever was selling out of pokeballs or snitches.
I was rejuvenated and inspired. It wasn’t just a sale, it was TRUE validation of my art – proof that I had something that people wanted in my little head!
Dad-gummit, I had good ideas!
Now that I think about it, I never made another trademarked character after that. My next year at the fair, I proudly displayed a sign that said, “All Original Designs.”
I completely sold out that year. I’ve never looked back.
I cherish every good review or thank you note that says my work is “like nothing else out there.” It makes my art heart happy. And it makes me keep pushing for originality in every project.
Recently, I have pulled down all past patterns of licensed characters (as many as I could find). It’s just not who I am anymore.
A Story: The Brilliant Artist and Their Leftover Inventory
I recently went to a local comic convention recently and saw a familiar sight: a lovely booth with a great display, covered in crocheted Pokemon.
Years ago, I would have been that person.
Now, it almost makes me cry.
The stitch work was lovely, the detail fantastic! The talent was there! So much talent!
But this artist looked beaten down and tired. They spent most of the fair behind the table, cranking out as many more pokemon as they could muster — manufacturing product.
Nobody seemed to notice that it was art, they only saw that it was a character — a familiar character — the same character that they see at Walmart and Target, just this time, in yarn.
I took the time to stop and tell the artist how beautiful their crochet work was and learned that they had adapted many of the patterns to suit their desires, which further proved their artistic abilities. I made sure to tell them how creative they were and how much talent they had.
Artists need to be told that THEY are worthy, not just that their plushies are recognizable.
I honestly think many crochet businesses (amigurumi or otherwise) fail because it becomes more of a grind to make product and we forget that we started this business for the art.
The artist had about half of their inventory left on the last day. And the thing is, I’ll bet the artist thought it was a good show and went home to make as many more Pokemon as their fingers could handle.
They are probably starting to feel the grind of being a manufacturer of merchandise, and not feeling like an artist at all.
And I really hope, with all my being, that it doesn’t crush their spirit. I hope their business grows.
But I also hope they stretch those talented fingers by making something that is just from their imagination — they clearly had the talent to manipulate yarn into beautiful things.
And then I hope someone picks up that piece-of-their-heart plushy and tells them how beautiful it is – because they deserve all the credit for being a magnificent artist. And not one drop of credit should go to the Pokemon.
I Won’t Lean On Disney
I’m going to admit it — having a crochet business is hard work. Whether you are a product seller or a designer, you are in a constant state of “what now!?”, trying to create something people will love.
So when something comes along like… let’s say Baby Yoda… it seems like it would be easy to jump on that bandwagon and ride it for as long as possible. The problem is that, no matter which wagon you get on, it will eventually stop and you will have to find another wagon.
Remember back when everyone was making Baby Yoda dolls and selling them? There were no other Baby Yoda dolls yet from Lucasfilm/Disney, so people were buying the crocheted ones left and right.
Do you remember what happened when Build A Bear released their Baby Yoda doll?
Customers suddenly had easier access to the character they wanted, and sales of crocheted Yodas dropped off.
The beautiful crochet art became irrelevant.
From the beginning, the customers were buying a character they wanted through the crochet artists, and now the crochet artists were struggling again, waiting for the next big trademarked character to arrive so they could sell more dolls.
The very artists who think they “stick it to the mouse” by using trademarked images are completely reliant on Disney’s latest ideas to run their business. They had to wait for the next movie or TV show to make a character “go viral” that they could make to keep their business alive.
While I keep track of trends like the recent obsessions with llamas and mermaids (I saw a mermaid skeleton in the Halloween section this week….huh…), I try really hard to take something “trendy” and spin it. I made a mermaid that is inspired by a koi or a betta, not a redhead with a crab for a lady’s maid.
I refuse to let Disney or any other pop culture company determine the direction of my next design.
What’s the fun in that?!
I’m out to make some wild looking things! Like a pink Wolpertinger or a Phoenix with his wings outstretched. And tomorrow, I’ll try something else a little crazy. It’ll be awesome, and it’ll be from my little brain.
For The Artists
Crochet artists, all of them — whether following a pattern or writing them — deserve the credit for their art.
I didn’t like feeling that the character got all the credit when I did all the work.
So if you love making licensed characters and you think I’m full of crap, tell me to shove off and get back to work making what you love! I won’t EVER tell you to stop making something you love (just protect yourself selling it, what with all that legal crappola).
But If you only make licensed things because you’re afraid your ideas are no good and they won’t sell, I encourage you to at least try.
My guess is that if you can make something awesome based on a popular character, then you can make something 10 times as amazing by using your imagination.
Just think of what you can create if you let yourself be inspired by anything in the world instead of just the narrow world of pop culture?!
I hope I get to see your original work someday. Then I can tell you how awesomely creative you are, and I hope it makes you feel truly validated.
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.