Perhaps you’ve heard of "baablegate." A wonderfully talented designer, Donna Smith, created the Baa-ble Hat as part of a promotion for Shetland Wool Week 2015. The pattern was free for Shetland Wool Week, and the knitting world went crazy. Like, absolutely, positively, nuts. I couldn’t scroll through Instagram without seeing a dozen new Baa-ble hats a day. As I remember, I desperately wanted to cast one on for myself, but was so focused on other projects that I managed to restrain myself.
Anyways, the pattern stopped being free, and Donna Smith announced that she’d be publishing a cowl and mittens pattern to go with the original. All three patterns are now available, and can be purchased for less than ten dollars in U.S. currency.
All of that is fairly routine in the knitting world. Many designers offer a pattern for free to promote themselves or some other event, and unless they’ve entered into a contract that says otherwise, they have every right to charge money for the pattern later on.
What’s not routine is when another designer takes a substantial part of the original pattern, makes a small change, and publishes the “new” pattern under his or her own name. That smells strongly of copyright infringement.
In the instance of baablegate, a second designer published a cowl to celebrate Rhinebeck. The cowl contained all of the most recognizable parts of the Baa-ble Hat (and subsequently published cowl). The only recognizable differences were that the “snowflake” pattern was changed slightly and the second design added in a single alpaca motif among the original sheep. For ease of reference, this cowl will be called the “derivative work.”
The derivative work was intended to be worn by a group of knitters to the Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival. The pattern was free on Ravelry, but it’s key to note that the original Baa-ble Hat was a paid pattern at the time of the derivative work’s release. Additionally, the derivative work was included as part of a kit for sale at the designer’s local yarn store (LYS). So while the derivative work itself was “free,” someone did intend to make a profit from it.
Naturally, drama ensued. Someone noticed the derivative work and called out the issue of copyright infringement. Everyone took sides, insults were hurled back and forth, comments and posts were deleted by both moderators and the original authors, and things got ugly.
As of this writing, the derivative work is still listed for free on Ravelry, but does not seem to be available for download. The kit is no longer listed for sale on the LYS website, either.
In the aftermath, many knitters are left scratching their heads. What’s the big deal, and why should we care? And perhaps, more importantly, how can we avoid this kind of fiasco in the future?
I don’t broadcast this very much, but I’m a lawyer, and I've spent a large part of my legal career so far working on cases that involve intellectual property. The reason I don’t mention it very often is because I have to give the following disclaimer:
The content on this website is only for general informational and educational purposes and does not constitute solicitation or provision of legal advice. Nothing on this website is intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and the author. Blog posts may or may not be updated, and may not reflect changes in the law that occur after the initial posting. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.
I have to say all that to protect my license, but now that it’s out of the way, let’s talk about U.S. copyright law and how it relates to knitting.
What IS Copyright?
Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects creative work. Like other kinds of property, people can’t take or use copyrighted works without the owner’s permission.
Frequently, we get permission to use copyrighted works by buying copies of the original work, like by buying copies of knitting patterns or knitting books.
Why Does Copyright Exist?
Copyright exists to allow the creators of art, music, written works, and yes, even knitting patterns to control and profit from the distribution of their creative work. In short, it takes a lot of work to record a song, make a video, write a book, or develop a knitting pattern. Just like authors expect to be paid for writing a book, a designer of a knitting pattern has the right to charge people money for it.
In recent years, the music and film industries have cracked down on people who “pirate” their products by copying and redistributing them without permission (and without paying the copyright owners). Knitting patterns have equal levels of copyright permissions. Even though some knitting patterns are free, we are still required by law to pay for the ones that aren’t free.
Paying for a copyrighted work usually gives the buyer a license to use the work. When you buy a DVD, you get a license to watch it in your own home. But you don’t usually get a license to play the movie in a movie theater for a paying audience. If you wanted to do that, you’d have to secure permission from the copyright owner, which usually involves paying an extra fee for a new license. You also don’t get a license to distribute copies of the DVD to other people. (That’s the bare bone basics of those mean copyright warnings at the beginning of movies.)
Similarly, when we buy knitting patterns, the creator has the right to limit the license for personal use, as well as to limit the purchaser’s ability to distribute additional copies of the work. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for limiting distribution, even when the knitting pattern is provided for free. For example, Ravelry uses algorithms to track patterns’ popularity. If an unauthorized copy gets distributed, that will hurt the original designer’s ranking on Ravelry.
At its core, copyright lets creators receive payment for their work. If a designer can get paid for her/his work, the designer can then go on to create more work. For example, Donna Smith, the original creator of the Baa-ble hat pattern, saw success in the popularity of the hat pattern, and decided to publish additional related patterns. By paying for the additional patterns, knitters support Donna in other future creative endeavors. It’s that simple.
Note: An exception to paying for copyrighted work for sale would be anything that is available in a library. But know that libraries have their own special considerations in copyright law, and often pay more for their license to use copyrighted works. There’s enough to fill whole books on libraries and copyrights, so for now I’ll just mention that libraries are a little bit different.
When Does Copyright Apply?
For copyright protection to apply, the copyrighted work must be recorded. The phrase in the law is “tangible medium of expression.” But “recorded” essentially means the same thing and is easier to understand.
Things that are protected by copyright include: audio recordings, video recordings, text recorded on paper or digitally, and files stored on a computer. So to use the knitting world as an example, things that could be copyrighted include: knitting patterns, blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, books, magazines, and more.
The author or creator of a creative work owns the copyright, unless the author has transferred ownership to someone else. Common examples include a designer transferring ownership of the copyright to the magazine that publishes a knitting pattern, or if the original author has died, his/her heirs may gain the rights to the work.
Copyright protection exists as soon as the work is recorded. The work doesn’t have to be published for copyright protection to apply. So if a hacker stole a knitting pattern I’ve been working on but haven’t published yet, I still own the copyright.
Creators can register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, which gives a stronger protections in the case of a lawsuit. But a creator doesn’t have to register their work in order to assert their copyright.
What About Creativity? What If I Want to Use an Existing Pattern As Inspiration?
At its core, copyright protection is meant to encourage creativity by giving people the ability to make money from their creative works. To encourage even more creativity and education, copyright law has a few exceptions called fair use and transformative use, which will be covered in the next post.
Whether you’re a knitter who knits only free patterns, a knitter who loves to buy from independent designers, or a designer yourself, it’s important to understand and respect copyright rules. At the core, copyright is really about playing fair and respecting each other, which are values that most knitters share. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
P.S. Here are links to some of the sources I used in researching this article:
www.copyright.gov – This is the U.S Copyright Office’s official website. It has great Q&As, like whether you can copyright your Elvis sighting.
https://www.lib.umn.edu/copyright This is the University of Minnesota Libraries page explaining copyright laws and how they work.
www.nolo.com Nolo is a publisher of DIY legal guides. (Remember that disclaimer folks: educational purposes only!) Their website has a big section on patent, copyright, and trademark information.