Get Your Craft On

Quickie Guide to Copyright Law

There are two subjects that make most brains explode: accounting and law. But for the good of mankind, I will attempt to tackle some questions regarding copyright that may be floating around your head.

Please keep in mind that I’m not a legal expert. I have researched this topic well, though, and I’ve talked to some experts. Also, this applies only to the United States, I’m sure other countries will differ. Take my advice at your own risk. :)

Q. You sell reconstructed band shirts, isn’t that infringing on the band/artist’s copyright?

A. No. Assuming I’m buying properly licensed t-shirts (which I am), I can do pretty much whatever I want with them. The “first sale doctrine” allows the lending, reselling, disposing, burning, etc. of an item after purchase. That’s why people can sell their used CDs and DVDs (and band shirts) on Ebay. As long as I’m not reproducing a band’s design or logo, I’m okay.

Q. Can I stencil or screenprint shirts with my favorite band’s logo?
A. No. Whether you are making a Rolling Stones shirt for yourself or a friend (and thus not getting money for it), or you are making 10 Rolling Stones shirts to sell (without permission from the owner of the copyright or trademark), no.

Even if you aren’t making a profit off of someone else’s work, you are still reproducing it without their consent. Of course, there’s not much chance you’d get caught in either of the above scenarios, seeing as you and me are small potatoes and not worth anything to the big kahunas. But wouldn’t it be more fun (and rewarding!) to come up with your own designs?

The same goes for any other reproduction methods.

Q. But I see people selling that kind of stuff all the time…

Yeah, I know. It happens all the time. It goes unpunished and unnoticed more often than not. Like I said, there’s little chance that most companies will even notice you’re doing it. Does that mean you should do it?

In my opinion, I’d rather buy an original work than a copy or a bootleg.

Important note: The internet is an awesome resource for sharing information. One of the unfortunate drawbacks is that we are so used to all of the images, ideas, etc. being so freely available, we start taking things for granted. The same rules for big companies and brands goes for “regular” people, too. Just because you find an image you like on the internet doesn’t mean you can use it. Someone somewhere created that image.

In fact, it’s my opinion that infringing on a regular joe’s copyright is a much bigger offense than ripping off a big company like Disney. Us little guys gotta stick together!

SO, if you want to make a necklace with a cupcake on it, don’t just google “cupcake” and yoink an image you find. DRAW YOUR OWN. Or take a photo. Make it your own.

 

Q. I made this really cute dress with a Simplicity sewing pattern, but the patterns says, “Private Use Only”, can I sell it?

Q. I made this really cute dress with Strawberry Shortcake fabric. The fabric says “Intended for Personal Use only.” Can I still sell it?

A. Yes.  That little disclaimer means nothing, and in essence, goes against the First Sale Doctrine. As long as you are not duplicating the actual sewing pattern or printing bootlegged Strawberry Shortcake fabric, you have not violated the copyright.

Caveat #1: Companies print those warnings in hopes that you’ll listen to them and not sell what you make. Some of them will also contact you with threats in hopes that you’ll quit selling your items.

I’ve been contacted by companies more than once regarding this kind of thing. Usually, when I explain to them that I understand my rights under the First Sale Doctrine, they leave me alone. There are a handful of companies (Harley Davidson, Disney, etc.) that are not so easily swayed. And unfortunately for us, when a big company like that decides to push hard, us little guys don’t usually have the means to push back.  My rule of thumb is to keep doing what I’m doing until I get a cease and desist order from a lawyer. (Which hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood.)

Caveat #2: Trademarks… most companies have trademarked their brand name. So they might claim that an item you’re selling called “Strawberry Shortcake dress” is a trademark violation, and they’d be correct.
Some people try to get around the trademark issue by saying their items are “inspired by Strawberry Shortcake”, etc. Some try putting a disclaimer in the listing that states the item is made using licensed Strawberry Shortcake fabric, but their shop is not affiliated with Strawberry Shortcake. Unfortunately, you’re still using the trademarked name.

Caveat #3: If you sell on a third party site, like Etsy or Ebay, your item will be removed if they receive a complaint from the copyright holder or representative, regardless of what rights you may have under the First Sale Doctrine or anything else. It is against their TOS to relist the item, so unless you can work something out with the company and get their permission to relist, I would advise not relisting the item.

 

Q. How do I copyright my stuff?

A. Technically, as soon as you write, draw, etc. your creation, it’s yours. You can register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, but it is not required. BUT- you will not be able to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement unless you’ve registered your copyright. Silly, yes?

It should be noted that you can’t copyright certain things, like “useful articles”. Examples include clothing, furniture, dinnerware, etc. This means, you can’t copyright pants, or a couch, or a spoon. You can copyright the artwork printed on the shirt, and the print on the fabric of the couch, and the ornamental design on the spoon.

Now let’s test your copyright knowledge with the copyright quiz!!

 

UPDATE – July 2012
I’ve decided to disable comments on this article, as it’s sort of turned into a “I make ____, is that legal?” Q&A session, and that really wasn’t my intent when I wrote this article. I’m no legal expert, after all.

So I’ll break it down one last time, in hopes that it will answer any further questions you may have.

1. If you want to be absolutely, 100% safe: don’t sell anything with someone else’s artwork, design, logo, or name on it. Whether it’s Disney or Nascar or Cheerios… whatever. It’s the only way to guarantee you’re not going to get into trouble.

2. If you still decide to sell things with someone else’s artwork, design, logo, or name on it, make sure you’ve bought a licensed product. And even then, I would suggest NOT listing such items on Etsy. If the copyright holder files a complaint with Etsy, you will risk losing your shop. It doesn’t matter that you’re protected under the First Sale Doctrine. Life is unfair that way, unfortunately.

3. If you are planning on printing, painting, stenciling, etc. someone else’s artwork, design, logo, or name on something without their permission, that would be infringing on their copyright. Period.

This website has awesome information on the legality of using licensed patterns and fabric when creating items for sale, check it out: http://www.tabberone.com/Trademarks/CopyrightLaw/Patterns.shtml

 

 

more on copyright law

Can You Copyright a Sewing Pattern?

10 copyright myths

U.S. Copyright Office

copyright and small business law

NOLO’s Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business

More on Useful Articles

49 comments to Quickie Guide to Copyright Law

  • Ru

    This is soo useful! Thank you! This really clarifies a lot of things for me. One question–is it legal to imitate a garment or costume made by someone else? Like, you see a dress in the movie ‘The Young Victoria’ that you really like, so you decide to reproduce it, or create a dress based off it.

    • Lex

      You’re welcome, Ru!
      The way I understand “Useful Articles”, which includes clothing, it would be legal to reproduce a garment like that. That’s why you see a lot of high fashion designer knock-offs. Unless they’ve got a piece of visual art or logo printed on the dress, it’s fair game.

      There are certain instances where people can claim a clothing design as “sculptural art”, and that CAN be copyrighted, but I don’t think costume designs would fall into the category, even if they tried.

      A bunch of wealthy, snooty designers were lobbying for the ability to copyright clothing designs about a year ago, I don’t think they succeeded. It’s a good thing, too… I have a feeling they’d run around trying to shut down smaller designers.

  • Louise Scott

    I am thinking of buying some dresses from a Chinese company. They are going to make them to look like the dresses of a famous dress designer. I will then be selling them on.

    Will I get in trouble for this?

    How do I find out if their dresses are copyrighted and if they can be copied?

    I’m sure they won’t be made of exactly the same material or have exactly the same finish.

    I would be great if you can help,

    Louise

    • Lex

      Hi Louise-
      At least in the US, that is perfectly legal, as long as you are not using a designer’s logo (think the Chanel “double C’s”) or something like that in the design. A dress can not be copyrighted, as it is a piece of clothing, which is considered a ‘Useful Article’.

      A bunch of the famous hotshot designers tried to rally together not that long ago to try to change that. They of course spun it to suggest they were trying to protect the “little guys”, but really, I think they would have abused such a power. What would have stopped them from slapping every small designer with a copyright suit?

    • Lex

      I wanted to add-
      You should avoid claiming the dresses to be like a particular designer, because that can get you into trouble.

      For example:
      “This dress is just like the Gucci dress worn by Michelle Von Fluffyhead at the Oscars.”

      Gucci (or whomever) could claim that you’re using their trademarked name to sell your product, which is a no-no.

      Instead you could say something like this:
      “This dress is nearly identical to a dress by a high end fashion designer, but available at half the price.”

  • Alexandra

    I’d like to thank you for this article as well. Question: Could I use purchased stock imagery on paper or as internet files in items intended for resale? I think the physical paper would fall into first purchase territory, but I’m not sure about reprinting from files. How can I be sure an image is owned by the person selling it to me?

    Also, I’m very glad they can’t copyright clothing designs. It seems like it would be difficult to tell how similar/different something would have to be to/from the original. It could get really nit-picky really fast and I’d hate a world where designers had too many limitations.

    • Lex

      Preprinted images on paper should be okay. Again, I’m sure plenty of the companies will try to mark all over it “for personal use only”, but once you buy the paper, you can do what you want with it.

      Files you purchase on the internet would be a bit different. Many people selling digital images put limitations on how you can use it… I’m not as certain about the legalities of what they can and can’t limit.

      Unfortunately, it’s hard to be certain that people selling artwork/images own them… I’ve seen plenty of people selling embroidery images and such with images I knew weren’t their own work.

  • Anna

    What about designers who sell sewing patterns, or even knit and crochet patterns on sites like etsy, ebay, etc, who all say something similar like “for personal use only”, “you can’t sell items made from this pattern”…. doesn’t that fall under the First Sale Doctrine also? Meaning you can in fact sell an item you made from a pattern you purchased as long as you are not redistributing the pattern itself?

    • Lex

      That is correct.
      I will say that I personally wouldn’t feel right making and selling from a pattern I bought from another indie designer. Not directly anyway. If I bought a pattern and modified it, that’s a different story, in my opinion.

  • Prissy

    Can you sell a craft you made using scrapbook paper with college logo already printed on it or do you have to get a license to sell something with this paper on it?

    • Lex

      That falls into the same gray area that selling items made with licensed fabric or a store-bought pattern does. The First Sale Doctrine gives you the right to do whatever you want with the scrapbook paper once you buy it.

      However, the licensing company doesn’t want you to be able to do whatever you want with it, if that means selling it, so sometimes they will hassle you. On sites like Etsy and Ebay, if they report your item in an official capacity, your item is likely to be removed from the site. That’s Etsy/Ebay covering their own ass.

      If you’re going to do it, be prepared for the licensing company to demand you remove your listings or have them removed with no notice. Like I said, most of the companies I’ve interacted with have left me alone after I explained my knowledge of the First Sale Doctrine, but there are lots of people I’ve talked with that have dealt with companies that weren’t so easily swayed.

  • Ariell

    Thanks for this article, it clears up a lot. One thing though, to clarify. If I understand it correctly, if I went to a fabric store, bought a pattern and fabric, and made a dress but added bows of ruffles or whatever, I could sell it legally right? Thanks for your time!

  • Lex

    You could sell it legally, regardless of what you added to it. Clothing is a useful article, and thus the copyright that protects works of art (like a song) does not apply.

    Think of it this way: someone can’t copyright on a t-shirt pattern, because it would essentially be claiming that they own the rights to all t-shirts. Any person making a t-shirt that resembled the copyright holder’s pattern (and no t-shirt pattern differs that much from another), would be asking to get sued. It wouldn’t even matter if they’d made their very own t-shirt pattern from scratch without ever having seen the company’s pattern.

  • S.

    Hi. Can i buy a licensed sew on patch (say a skull design) and sew it on to a shirt for re-sale? In a similar situation, can i buy a licensed sticker, put in on a craft such as a box, and re-sell?

    • Lex

      Yes, you can absolutely do that. However, if the designs are brand names or logos (like a Beatles patch or a Legos sticker), you might still get copyright complaints based on the trademarks. The name “the Beatles” is trademarked, which means if you listed a bag with a Beatles patch on it as “Beatles tote bag”, the copyright holder could ask you to remove their name. You could argue that you’re merely offering an accurate description of the item, but some of the people tasked with copyright protection are jerks/ignorant/don’t care.

      This is more of a concern on an e-commerce website like Etsy or Ebay, where a copyright holder can just ask that your listing be removed, and the sites will comply, no questions asked. I’ve removed all of my licensed merchandise from Etsy because of this.

  • Kelly

    Thanks there is great info here. I have a question. What about creating hats or scarves with yarn in college school colors and selling them? (with no logo) Do they also own the rights to the color combinations?

    • Lex

      They do not own the rights to the color combinations, but if you made a yellow and blue scarf, and sold it with the title “University of Michigan scarf”, they could ask you to stop using their name since it’s trademarked.

  • Jamie

    Hi Lex,
    I think I’m understanding this correctly, but I wanted to double check. I make bottlecap necklaces. If I buy licensed 1 inch stickers of NFL & NHL logos, put them in the bottlecap, and cover it with epoxy/string it on a chain, am I okay to resell? I’m not copying the logo, or printing it. I’m using individual stickers that are licensed. Would that be covered under the First Sale Doctrine similar to fabrics? Thank you so much!

    • Lex

      Jamie, technically yes, that is legal. As I’ve mentioned before, though, just because it’s legal doesn’t mean the company that licenses the stickers won’t jump all over you for selling items made with them.

  • Debi

    I’m making these collages using printed paper, stickers, and generally “scrapbooking” items I purchased from a craft store. Under the First Sale Doctrine can I sell these? I didnt know if copyright laws would be violated? Thanks for you help.

    • Lex

      Yes, the First Sale Doctrine applies to your example. Or maybe I should say, “Yes, BUT…”.

      The First Sale Doctrine says you can do whatever you like with these items, including selling them. And most craft supply companies would probably wish you the best of luck. However, if you use any paper or stickers with licensed characters (like Dr. Seuss characters or something like that), then you might run into trouble. See Caveat #1 and #2 for the exact kind of trouble I’m talking about.

  • Hey Lex! This is all such great information. I’m new to sewing and have been selling my items. I’ve been wondering about all the legal issues out there and reading this did help. I do have another question for you.

    I am making an adult size hooded towel and they’ve requested that it be Auburn themed. I thought it would be awesome to embroider the AU logo on it but was wondering about the legal boundaries of it. I found several people on Etsy who sell the embroidery design that I can buy and download onto my embroidery machine. I’ve emailed 3 of them asking about legal issues and if I’m able to embroider their/Auburn’s design on my item and sell it. None of them have responded to me. Maybe you can help me out?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Lex

      It really depends. If these sellers have the rights to sell the licensed designs, then I would say it’s the same as if you were purchasing licensed Auburn fabric. They might say personal use only, but as I’ve stated above, that’s a bunch of hooey.

      If they are selling the designs without permission, not only are they infringing on copyrights by selling the designs, but you would also be doing so by selling items made with them.

  • Beckie

    My friend is making bows (hair bows) from colors of pro and college football, baseball teams she purchases from on line craft sights and craft stores, is what she is doing alright>

  • Meg

    Say I crochet, paint or draw Disney characters, or other characters like Elmo, or Totoro. Is it legal to sell them if i don’t put their logo on it…?

  • tina

    I have a question: if u use a character such as hello kitty on a bottle cap necklace to sell, am i violating any copyrights? how can i use the character and still sell the item? i see tutorials on youtube to make these things but is it really ok to sell em?

    • Lex

      It depends on where you get the image. If you print it off the internet, you’re reproducing a copyrighted image. That’s flat out copyright infringement.
      If you buy licensed stickers, you’re not reproducing the image, but you can still run into trouble. See Caveat #1 and #2 in the article.

  • Laura

    I bought some college logo molds from http://www.teamtailgateshop.com/ with the idea of making resin jewelry/ornaments for resell. One of the molds has “TM” by each spot to mold. While I will be making copies (that’s the mold’s purpose lol), will I be okay for resell?

    • Lex

      I’ve talked to some other resin sellers that brought up an interesting point: most molds like those, while perhaps sold by some as jewelry/resin molds, are generally made to be ice cube molds. Whether that matters in a case where they are literally selling you the means to recreate their design, I don’t know. My guess would be that if a company tried to bring suit against someone for using the molds to make items to sell, they would lose.

      Still, your main issue will likely be trademarks. See Caveat #2 in the article. I guarantee that even the molds not marked with a TM are trademarked. The names of the teams and schools are trademarked, and they can stop you from using them.

  • Linda

    Is it legal to use second hand clothes to make purses (for sale) and showcase the labels from the clothes on the outside of the purse as part of the decoration on the purse?

    • Lex

      That would be fine, but if you’re listing them on a selling site like Etsy, using the designer name in the title could be interpreted as trademark infringement.

  • dawn

    greetings! i am glad to have found your site! i am new to embroidery world. I’ve purchased an embroidery machine like 5 months ago, the thing is that my husband downloaded embroidery patterns from the internet(saw some of them at etsy)Now, my concern is that do I have the right to sell the pattern itself? and or if i have the right to sell an item, like a bag for example with a downloaded embroidery i got?
    thanks for helping :-)

    • Lex

      I would doubt that anyone would allow you to resell their patterns.
      As for being allowed to sell an item with a pattern embroidered on it, it will really depend on who you purchased the pattern from. Some probably don’t allow it, but I know some that do, like UrbanThreads.com.

      In terms of whether or not a company has the right to forbid you from selling an item with their pattern embroidered on it… it’s another trip into murky territory.
      On the one hand, they’re giving you the means to reproduce their design. Can they tell you what you can and can’t do with it after you’ve made an embroidery piece?
      On the other hand, you could think of it as being similar to licensing deals that companies make with manufacturers. For example, Hello Kitty might go to a manufacturer and say, “We want you to make 5000 Hello Kitty stuffies for us.” Does the manufacturer have carte blanche to make another 2000 Hello Kitty stuffies to sell for themselves? Certainly not. The deal was that they had permission to use the trademarked design to make 5000 stuffies for the Hello Kitty license holder. Likewise, perhaps a design company should (and perhaps does) have the right to sell you the means to reproduce a design, but stipulate that it is for personal use only and NOT for sale.

  • Noelle Meade

    I make little knit bags on hand looms that I sell on Etsy. They are my own pattern. In one case I happened to have an official Harley Davidson patch. I sewed it onto the pouch and just got a letter from Harley Davidson that I have to remove any and all items with their logo immediately and that the patch was for personal use only. My item description is clear that it’s an item I created and sewed a patch onto. If I add a statement that “This is not an official product of Harley Davidson” do I still have to remove my item?

    • Lex

      I would remove the item. Not because you’re doing anything wrong, but because Harley Davidson has been very aggressive and stubborn about this kind of thing in the past, and they can not be reasoned with. (More can be read about this here: http://www.tabberone.com/Trademarks/HallOfShame/HD/HarleyDavidson.shtml)

      If you don’t remove your item, they will likely file a formal complaint with Etsy. Then Etsy will remove your item. That’s if you’re lucky. Others have had their shops closed permanently. It’s been suggested that the first complaint like this is your “warning” and that any subsequent complaint is grounds for them to close your shop, but I wouldn’t risk the “warning”, personally.

      I’ve removed all licensed stuff from my Etsy shop for this very reason.

  • Noelle Meade

    Thanks for the feedback and the link. So they’re being jerks and bullies, basically, but it’s not worth my Etsy store or potential legal bills to fight with them. I have removed the item. If only I’d won the mega lottery – there would be payback. ;-)

    • Lex

      Exactly. It’s unfortunate that Etsy has even taken such a hardline with trademark stuff. If I were Etsy, I’d remove the item and let that be that. It’s one of the few things that makes me think fondly of Ebay in comparison.

  • tracy

    Hi:) I have recently started teaching myself how to sew bags, and to do that i have gotten some free patterns off some blogs. I am now thinking about selling, probably by starting up a facebook page. The bags are made from these patterns some of them modified a bit and they will have my own logo on. Is that ok or will the people that put up these free patterns have a problem with it? I mean, a bag is a bag after all you know?

    • Lex

      Legally, it’s okay. Whether or not they’ll have a problem with it is a different matter. ;)

      I used to ask that people not use my tutorials to make items to sell, but I realized that not only could I not control that, I was happier if I didn’t worry about it. And like you said- a bag is a bag. And a hoodie is a hoodie. I’m not teaching people anything they couldn’t go buy a pattern for or figure out themselves in some way, so pretending I have some sort of monopoly on a hoodie (or whatever) is silly and arrogant. (In my oh-so-humble opinion.)

  • SewCraftyGrammy

    Very helpful info. I have other questions however.

    Question#1 – I have been making lots of items for my grandchildren creating my own patterns. I am looking to publish some of my pattern creations. I could use some direction on how to get started on this.

    Question #2 – I have made some Superhero capes using licensed logo’s – what are the copywrite laws on this? I have been told if you deviate from the original design you can use it, but how much change is necessary? I want to do this right.

  • Angie

    Hi my question is could you buy an item for example a purse from target, recustomize it, then re-sell it? I live in California by the way not sure what the laws are here on such things. Thanks!

  • Angie

    Hi I make hairbows for my daughter. I have used hello kitty and dora ribbon that I have bought from walmart. A friend of mine asked me to make some for her and she will pay me. Can I sell the bow? Can I also sell nfl, mlb bottle caps with my bows?

    • Lex

      As long as you’re buying licensed materials, you can sell the bows and bottle caps, but please see Caveat #1 and #2 for problems you can run into.

      If you’re strictly selling to people you know in real life and not over the internet, then you can really ignore those caveats.

  • Kristi

    I just found a new craft on Pinterest that i want to make and sell at craft shows. It takes a vinyl record and makes it into an artistic wall hanging. I dont want to steal anyone’s great idea, but I am confused as to what part of a craft I can copy and what part is covered under copyright. This is not a utilitarian piece like a shirt.

    • Lex

      Even home decor can count as utilitarian. Remember that it’s generally the actual DESIGN of something that is protected. Not the idea itself.

      Take the ideas here for example: http://www.greendiary.com/entry/ten-ways-recycle-vinyl-records/

      The record cut into bird silhouettes- as long as you don’t copy their design exactly (and by that I mean essentially tracing around their birds and reproducing that design), you can use the same idea, and it’s fine. Make your own birds. Make a moose instead of birds. As long as it’s your “shape”, which is the actual artwork in this case, you aren’t doing anything but getting inspiration. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • tabrina meyer

    i have a home based craft business and create and sell items at craft shows and farmers markets the question i have is on wood signs that i would like to paint and stencil a college team on the board in a different font and also buying plain apparel (shirts, sweatshirts etc) and cutting out different font lettering and appliqueing them onto the apparel if this is legal w/out a license agreement to resell? thank you for your time