In the United States, patterns are generally not eligible for copyright protection as copyright does not apply to methods or “procedures for doing, making, or building things.” Additionally, an item created from a pattern also lacks copyright protection if it is considered to be a functional object. Under the Useful Article doctrine in US copyright law, if an object has a practical or useful function, copyright protection applies only to the original, creative elements “that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of an object”, but does not extend to the underlying design of the functional object.
In the absence of copyright protection for functional objects, a user of a pattern may be able to use whatever she makes from that pattern for any purpose, including selling the items. However, accompanying materials included with the pattern, such as images, may be eligible for copyright protection (see image above). The United States Copyright Office provides the example that while a drawing or photo of a dress may be copyrighted, that does not give the artist the exclusive right to make a dress of that particular design.
“Copyright 2014. All Rights Reserved. Pattern is for personal, non-commercial use only. Selling items made from this pattern is prohibited.”
When it comes to what can be done with the final product made from a pattern, there is a conflict between the desires of those who want to use the pattern and those who designed the pattern. With no relevant case law available as a guide, there really are no definitive answers. Despite the lack of legal precedent, those wanting to use patterns and the items made from those patterns should be aware of how they can legally make use of these materials. In the same vein, designers should understand to what extent and how they can protect their work.
The view commonly held by designers is relatively simple: follow the restrictions set in the pattern’s disclaimer. For example, if a knitting pattern you downloaded was accompanied by a disclaimer that read “personal, non-commercial use only” you could make as many items as you wanted using that pattern, but you could not sell any of them because that would constitute a non-personal, commercial use. However, when designers place notices on their patterns, they may be exaggerating copyright protections and licenses. But it is important to remember that even if copyright protection is not available, a user may be agreeing to a license that restricts the way he may use the pattern when he consents to the terms and conditions set by the designer.
Pattern users should be aware of what they are agreeing to when purchasing or downloading a pattern. By clicking a box that reads, “I agree to the terms & conditions”, a user may be entering into a legally binding agreement that can restrict what she may do with the pattern. Under US law, terms that parties consent to in a contract can trump copyright law, leaving designers with possible legal recourse for misuse of a pattern.
Seeking clear legislative guidance and wanting protection for their work, the fashion industry lobbied Congress to create legislation that would protect unique designs. First introduced in 2007, the Innovate Design Protection and Piracy Prohibition Act (IDPPPA) sought to protect designs for a period of three years if registered with the US Copyright Office within three months of being made available to the public. While similar legislation to limit design piracy has been enacted in Europe, India and Japan, legislative progress of the IDPPPA has stalled as of 2014, and patterns are still generally not copyrightable in the United States.
Unless and until moves are made in Congress, answers about copyright protection and designs still lie in a gray area. Whether you are a designer or a user of patterns, it is important to remain informed about your legal rights and understand the possible ramifications that can come along with something as simple as a pattern.
Morgan Cheek is a legal intern at the OSU Libraries’ Copyright Resources Center and is currently a student at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law