If you’ve been in any online forum or group for long enough, at some point the dreaded “c” word will come up — copyright. It’s an issue that affects both designers and stitchers, as well as the stitching industry at large. So I thought I’d go through a few of the basics, so stitchers can understand whether they’re getting a legal pattern or whether they’ve unfortunately purchased an illegal copy.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor an IP (intellectual property) expert. Some of the things I’ll be saying are based on my own research, or my time as a cyber threat analyst and intelligence officer. If you have any questions about IP or copyright, please speak to an attorney specializing in this field.
The basics of copyright
Copyright is a legal term basically meaning that a creation is original, and from one person (or company). For example, when I design a pattern based on my own original art, both the art and the pattern are my copyright. It’s traditional to mark this with the copyright symbol (©), but it’s not legally necessary. If I paint an image, and then make a cross stitch pattern from it, that’s called a “derivative” work, the pattern was derived from the painting. Because the art is my copyright, I obviously don’t need to ask myself for permission to make a derivative work. 🙂
When designing, copyright has several implications. For certain commissions, the copyright will transfer to the company commissioning the design. This means the designer cannot replicate that design and sell it themselves, they’d be breaching their contract. An example would be a graphic designer working for a design company — any designs created while working for that company are the copyright of the company, not the original designer. Of course the designer can use the images in a portfolio (as long as this isn’t prohibited in their contract), but they cannot resell or reuse those images. For many magazine commissions, designers retain the copyright, but the rights to sell the pattern remain with the magazine for the first 6 months after publication. Once the six months are up, the designer can sell the pattern themselves.
Free cross stitch patterns
Many designers offer free cross stitch patterns, either on their Facebook page or group, or on their website. For example, the free Peacock & Fig cross stitch patterns are available to members of the Peacock Lounge (you can sign up here to access them). Some of the free patterns are featured in the photo, the Peacock Feather is really popular. 🙂
Sometimes designers will share images of their free patterns on social media, including sites like Pinterest. Unfortunately, there are also ridiculous amounts of illegal patterns being shared as “free” patterns on sites like Pinterest too. If a chart doesn’t lead to the original designers page, or to a trusted and well-known site like DMC, then there’s a very high probability that the pattern was illegally uploaded. Here’s DMC’s free pattern site, they commission designers to create this lovely collection of patterns. There are also other legitimate free sites, like Daily Cross Stitch, and free patterns offered on stitching magazine’s websites.
Cross stitch patterns for purchase
And of course, there are thousands of incredibly talented designers out there you can purchase cross stitch patterns from. Many have their own websites (like some of my talented friends like Shannon Christine, Faby Reily, and Julie Jackson of Subversive Cross Stitch) and many others sell via online marketplaces like Etsy. Some designers even sell by Amazon or eBay, but that is much rarer. In order to keep designing and providing new exciting designs, obviously the designers need to be paid for their work, whether that’s through direct sales of their designs, wholesaling the patterns to needlework shops, or commissions with magazines and companies like DMC. For an example of the design process and how intensive it can be, please check out this short video below of my own design process.
So what’s the problem with copyright infringement?
There are two main issues with copyright infringement — designers lose money and their reputations can be damaged, and the stitcher often ends up with an inferior quality pattern.
For the stitcher, often people who are stealing images to sell as patterns online aren’t designers themselves. Thus the patterns are purely put through software without cleaning them up, making sure the colours are accurate, making sure the art is properly licensed or used with permission, etc. So the stitcher ends up with a massive chart that has 90+ colours in it, many of which are totally unnecessary. This makes buying floss for the pattern very expensive. The colours are often skewed too as the person making the chart doesn’t know how to adjust the colours and details for the best effect. It’s not uncommon at all for the finished piece to end up looking totally different than the image on the front of the pattern.
Also, one less-known “issue” with downloading illegal patterns (particularly from “free” sites) is that often the digital files (or the site itself) is a host for malware. Nothing is truly ever free, and there are many sites that are set up as a “honey pot.” No one would ever suspect something as ordinary as a stitching website to actually be the equivalent of a cyber trap, so visitors tend to not be suspicious. So it’s not uncommon for those free files to actually be a means to transfer malware or spyware to your computer, the same way many “free” music or movie downloads can infect your computer. There has been a massive increase of ransomware in the past few years — the virus will lock your computer so it’s totally useless, and you must pay money to the ransomware creator or website host to get your computer unlocked.
For the designers, seeing their designs being uploaded to illegal sites have serious and often career-threatening costs. One designer friend told me that with just one popular pattern of hers that was stolen and illegally uploaded to a sharing site, she’s lost approximately $10,000 in revenue. From one pattern, on one site. That can make or break the ability to continue designing. If the designers aren’t getting revenue they can’t afford the software and business systems they need (like their website), and they can’t afford to spend months designing and stitching collections for their fans and customers. Many designers do end up quitting because of the financial losses.
Even large companies can suffer losses. It’s incredible how much money is spent on counterfeit goods, and it’s easy to forget the thousands of jobs that are created by big companies that do affect real people. In addition, counterfeit patterns can create serious problems for the reputation of the company. People might think it’s a real product, and then get upset when it turns out to be a bad quality they’ve wasted time and money on. That’s why companies such as Disney are quite fierce about protecting their copyright — their characters are all they have to distinguish themselves. There definitely are businesses that pretend they are allowed to sell copyrighted characters (like Disney) by adding in their own copyright information. Many shoppers won’t realize that’s illegal — it’s the equivalent of stealing a vehicle, scraping off the VIN number, and trying to resell it as your property. Here’s an example of one way shops do this, you can see the shop had put their business name after the pattern name as if it was designed by them. I’ve blocked out the business name, but that’s pretty common (or seeing ©shop name in the listing description). It can cost tens of thousands of dollars (or more) for a commercial license for one Disney product, so it’s highly unlikely any cross stitch designer could afford that. Disney is also very selective about who they will issue licenses to (like Thomas Kindkade patterns are properly licensed with Disney’s approval).
There are also losses that are beyond financial. Seeing someone steal a design and either claim it as their own or upload it to a sharing site is incredibly hurtful and disheartening. It’s the equivalent of someone coming into your home and stealing something you spent a lot of time and love on. Here’s an example, on the left is a pattern I created for my best friend’s parents, he passed away suddenly in January and I felt the need to create something to memorialize him. It’s representing the massive hole he left in our hearts. I got the blackwork pattern (called a diaper pattern) from a stitching book I have, and adapted it to create the heart shape in the centre. On the right is a copy I found in a stitching group, the person who posted it claimed they made the pattern up and it wasn’t copied from mine. You can clearly see every stitch is identical, it was just continued into a rectangular shape. This was a very distressing experience, particularly considering the meaning behind the pattern. I had never released the actual pattern publicly for that reason, I had only ever shown the finished photo once on Instagram and once on Facebook in early February just before his funeral.
So what can you do?
Thankfully, there are actually many ways to protect yourself from ending up with illegal patterns (whether free or paid). Below are some tips that might help you the next time you go shopping online, or someone forwards you a “great” site for free patterns.
- For sites you’re not familiar with (or online shops), have a quick scroll through the patterns available. If you see any Disney patterns, or any characters that are copyrighted (like Deadpool, Pokemon, Winnie the Pooh, etc), there’s a very high probability that the patterns are illegal. If they are very different from the originals (like the fantastic parodies of various characters done by Cloudsfactory), then they’re legal. A parody of an original design is ok, but a direct copy from an image that’s been taken from online or a photograph isn’t. Fan art is a very murky legal area, I won’t delve into it here as it does depend on whether the original artist encourages fan art or not. It’s no fun for the stitcher, as people do want popular characters and such, especially for kids who are demanding a pattern of their favourite character. Unfortunately legal versions of those characters are very rare, due to the costs of obtaining commercial licenses. And even if a pattern is free, it’s not legal to use art or images without permission or proper licensing.
- Another giveaway the site is probably selling/giving away illegal patterns is if there is a massive range of styles. Each designer has a very unique style, so unless it’s a company like those listed above that properly license artists and sell the patterns, it’s probable that the patterns are illegal.
- The prices are too cheap. A designer pattern can be anywhere from $5 to $15 (or up), depending on the complexity of the pattern. A good indication of someone not designing their own patterns is if they sell the pattern really cheaply. This isn’t the only indicator, but it is an important one.
- The artwork is clearly modern, but there is no licensing information in the description. If the art is from a well known artist from after 1923 (like Georgia O’Keeffe), and there’s nothing in the listing saying the images were used with permission of her estate, they’re likely illegal.
- If the site is hosted in China or Russia. This is a big generalization, as there are many very talented Chinese and Russian designers with legitimate websites. But if you know you’re on a site that is hosted in those countries, look for other signs you might be on an illegal sharing site.
- If a free chart is a scan from a magazine page (or a photocopy of a chart or magazine), it’s illegal. If it’s just the chart (and usually doesn’t have a colour key), it might be illegal, but see if any of the other warning signs also apply.
- Online marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, AliExpress, etc. These sites can have legitimate patterns, but often they’re copies of stolen art and designs and resold. If the prices for a pattern are a lot lower on these sites than on the designer’s website, there’s a good chance it’s an illegal pattern.
- You can do a reverse image search in Google to see if the pattern really is original, or if it was stolen from another designer or shop.
Hopefully this hasn’t confused you too much! Thankfully most people are very honest, and understand that fake patterns affect their ability to keep stitching lovely projects in the long term. If you ever see a “free” pattern from a designer you know and you aren’t sure whether it’s legitimate or not, please do contact the designer. They can tell you straight away whether it’s a pattern they’ve authorized, and if not it allows the designer to start the legal process to get the pattern removed. You can also often report copyright infringements to the company (such as Disney), here’s Disney’s info about reporting an infringement. Also, many Facebook group admins are really good at spotting fake patterns, so if you send them a message with a link to a pattern you’re looking to buy, they’ll be able to tell you whether it’s legitimate or not. If you’re a designer, or you’re not sure of the legal intricacies in your country, then please do contact an IP or copyright lawyer. Like I said, I’m not a lawyer so I can’t give any legal advice. But it’s always good to be aware of the general issues, so you know what to look out for.
If you’d like some more information about the issues of copyright, here’s a great article that breaks down some of the more common myths. And click the image below to access a handy downloadable quick reference checklist.