Google+ House Revivals: What Crafters Need to Know About U.S. Copyright Law

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What Crafters Need to Know About U.S. Copyright Law

I allowed myself to be bullied.  Fortunately, on my long drive out to the beach house, I was able to "get into that place" and think things through.  (This post is participating in the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  B is for Bully.)

It was early December of 2012 and things were good and I was happily going along, minding my business and doing my thing, when I got a strange email. A woman claimed to own the copyright to the designs for some popular star weaving craft tutorials I had written for my blog.

She told me she was working with an attorney to have all such tutorials removed from Blogger and YouTube and that she had invented that particular craft and had written a tutorial, which she sold on her website. She claimed I was in violation of copyright, and demanded I remove my tutorials. I felt bullied. This person implied she and her attorney could have my blog taken down, and frankly, I was freaking out about potential legal fees.

I was pretty upset -- I had worked hard photographing and writing my tutorials, but I quickly "unpublished" my tutorials, after all, this person claimed to be working with a lawyer! I had been certain that the craft was a very old craft of Scandinavian or Northern European origins, but I wasn't familiar with copyright law concerning crafts. I felt intimidated. During the drive out to the coast, I was able to think things through. Something just wasn't sitting right.  The woman's claims -- that she had invented the craft and was the only person authorized to share tutorials for the craft -- didn't make sense. I had never even seen this person's tutorial booklet. I had taken my own pictures and written my own words -- didn't I have a right to my own words and images?

When I arrived at our beach house that afternoon, it was raining, so I stayed inside and made some calls -- first to my good friend, Tina, who writes at Life is Good. My question for Tina was, "don't you have a woven star Christmas decoration from Sweden?" Tina got back with me, with a picture of this beautiful woven star that had been in her family for generations!

Okay, so now I knew I was not going crazy. The craft of weaving stars was an old traditional craft. Some internet searches yielded even more images of traditional woven stars -- stars that predated this woman's star tutorials. I republished my posts, with edits to show the history of the design, and to encourage others not to give in to bullying. Fortunately, I had a support network of other bloggers and crafters who had experienced similar bullying -- either from this particular person, or from big retailers, or from other crafters.

The rain continued, out at the beach, so I continued to busy myself with research, spending hours on the U.S. Copyright website. At this point, I need to insert a disclaimer: I am not an attorney, and nothing I say should be construed as legal advice. I am simply sharing what I learned in my research, and sharing where I got my information.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about copyrights, and why we have copyrights. In Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, the congress is empowered "to promote the progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors, the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."  When trying to understand U.S. Copyright law, it helps to understand their purpose, as presented in our Constitution. Basically, it's not about promoting the individual artists and poets (sorry people). It's about promoting progress.

It's in society's best interest to promote progress by limiting rights to certain works to the creators of such works, for a limited time. This encourages individuals to pursue their craft and to contribute to our society's collective body of knowledge. By placing time limits on copyright protections, the framers hoped copyright holders would be motivated to continue advancing in their craft, and advancing society's body of knowledge. Copyright was intended to promote the progress of science and useful arts.

It is also helpful to understand exactly what can (and cannot) be copyrighted. According to the U.S. copyright website:

"Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work."

Basically, you can copyright your own expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. This is why craft processes and concepts in a pattern cannot be copyrighted -- only the specific text and graphics you created are copyrighted. Section 102 of the Copyright Act says

“In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

What does all this have to do with the bully who contacted me?  Well, for starters, she did not "invent" the concept of weaving an eight-pointed star, but more importantly, even if she had done so, she could not have copyrighted the weaving process. She definitely does own the copyright to her own text and illustrations, but not to the idea that they represent. Additionally, her copyright does not allow her to force me to stop publishing my own copyrighted material.

Our words and our pictures are our own, and no one has the right to censor our own expression of an idea.

There is lots more information on the U.S. Copyright website.  If you are a crafter or a designer or a writer I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with the website -- it's pretty user friendly, and includes lots of easy to understand circulars on different topics.  It is important to know your (copy)rights.

For another article where I touched on this topic, go here.