"Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn't hurt the untroubled spirit either." ~ Elizabeth Zimmerman


About Pattern Copyrights

There is a lot of misinformation being bandied about regarding knitting patterns and how copyright applies to them and the finished objects made using them. For a long time I've wanted to post something here about the topic with accurate information. I do not feel that my writing skills can do the topic justice, so I've asked someone who is knowledgeable on the subject to please write a guest post about it for my blog. Evelyn Uyemura, author of the blogs CopyKnit and Lost the Thread, very kindly obliged. Thank you Evelyn.

Some Thoughts on Copyright by Evelyn Uyemura
There are many controversies in the world of knitting about copyright and what rights it gives to knitting pattern designers. This article is written with US law only in view. Other countries have other laws. I am not a lawyer. The opinions expressed here are just that: opinions—hopefully well-informed opinions based on careful reading of copyright information from the US Copyright Office.
So, let's start at the foundation. Copyright law in the US is based on the US Constitution

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 says:
The Congress shall have power...

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

This clause covers both Copyright and Patent, the first for authors and the second for inventors, and the purpose is that by passing laws that guarantee that authors and inventors can profit from their creations for a certain time period, they will continue to create, and knowledge will be advanced.

What Can Be Copyrighted?

Under US law, every work of writing is automatically covered by copyright as soon as it is written. This post, for example, is now copyrighted to me, whether I register it or not, and whether I mark it with a copyright sign or not.

In addition, songs, sculptures, architectural works, video and phono-recordings, and ship hulls can be copyrighted, among other things. But with the exception of ship hulls, utilitarian articles are not subject to copyright. Useful articles are exempted from copyright. And basically, all items of clothing and accessories are considered to be useful articles.

When it comes to knitting, what this means is that patterns (ie written instructions for how to make a sweater or pair of mittens) are copyrighted. Individual stitch patterns are generally agreed to be not copyrightable, in the same category as recipes, but the written instructions that tell you how to make a finished object are copyrighted, automatically. (Older patterns may have fallen out of copyright, but that's another subject.)

However, although a pattern is copyrighted, the actual item of clothing that it describes how to make is not copyrighted. No item of clothing, whether a Vera Wang wedding gown or a baby's diaper cover, is copyrighted. No one owns any look or style or combination of elements that make up clothing. Fashion designers who work for large-scale manufacturers do not own rights to their designs, and neither does a home knitter who has created a clever pair of booties.

If a fashion designer or sweater manufacturer publishes a picture of her design, or sells her item in a shop, there is nothing at all to keep you or me or another manufacturer from looking at it, figuring out how it was made, and reproducing that same look to the best of our abilities. This is often referred to as reverse-engineering, and the new article as a knock-off. Reverse-engineering and knock-offs are completely legal in the US. If you see a hat you like in a catalog, you are free to use all your skills to make one for yourself.

So far, so good.

Everyone seems to enjoy copying some high-priced hat sold at a fancy-pants store and making it out of even nicer materials for half the price.

The flip side of this coin is that theoretically at least, a high-priced store could see your cute little hat on your knitting blog or on ravelry.com and copy you! And mass-produce them! In China! And make a million bucks! And where's your cut???!!!

So let's say that you posted just a picture of your hand-knit original hat, and another designer liked your idea and copied it. And she is now selling a hat just like yours, whether through Walmart or Anthropologie, or in her etsy.com shop. Do you have a complaint? Has she infringed on your rights? Are you owed a cut? The answer is no. Why? Because fashion design is not copyrighted. You can copy the big boys, and the big boys can copy you.

But, But, But….
So right away, someone says, ok, maybe not copyright, but maybe something else applies here. Maybe I should have patented my hat. Short answer; not gonna happen. Long answer: get a lawyer and go for it (and it's still not gonna happen. Unless your hat turns sunlight into energy or something, it's not going to be patented. Patents are for processes. Not for ordinary items of clothing, no matter how cleverly put together they are.)

Maybe something else applies? Trademark? Trade dress? Again, the short answer is no, they don't apply to fashion design, or the design of clothing. Copying someone else's trademark, such as putting the label Gucci on a bag that is not Gucci's is trademerk infringement. Making a bag that looks like Gucci's is not. (Incidently, using the name Gucci, or even the name of a knitting designer, in your advertising is unwise, as you may be infringing on the trademark. Thus the desire to “give credit” may backfire.)

So, okay, here's what we know for sure:
  1. Anyone can copy anyone else's design, style, look, shape, colors, and so on, because the design of clothing is all public domain, no one owns any of it.
  2. Patterns (ie instructions) for how to make a knitted item are copyrighted, and the set of instructions cannot be copied.
So this is where the topic gets sticky.

Does Copyright Cover FOs (Finished Objects)?

So we know that the design of clothing is not copyrightable, and we know that knitting patterns, as written expression, photos, charts, etc, are copyrighted.

So what happens when I buy a knitting pattern and make a sweater or diaper cover or some other useful object by using that pattern?

Perhaps the pattern says: "Copyright Diana Designer, All rights reserved."

Does that mean that my FO (Finished Object: the sweater, or mittens or diaper cover or whatever) is somehow under the control of the designer?

When the designer says, "All rights reserved," what does that mean? Can the designer tell me that the pattern is for my personal use only? Can she tell me that I can make a limited number of diaper covers from it, or that I can make as many as I want but only for my personal use? Or that I cannot sell my sweater? Or that I can't sell a hundred booties from her pattern, on etsy, or at craft fairs?

This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of copyright as it applies to knitting. My answer is based on my own logic and my own understanding of what copyright law says. I am not a lawyer. I am an English teacher by profession and a knitter and small-time designer by hobby. I do not sell any hand-knits not do I ever intend to. I do sell some simple patterns. I believe that my answer is an honest attempt to apply what the law says to this question.

So let's take a step back. Every item of clothing that you own was designed by someone. Does that designer get a say in what you do with clothing you bought? Can she tell you that you can't sell it at a yard sale? What if you were a famous person and you wore a dress and then donated it to a charity and the charity auctioned it off and raised a large sum of money based on the fact that you had worn it? Would you need to contact the designer for permission?

I think we can easily say that no, the designer, once she designs and sells an item of clothing, has no say in what you do with it at all.

So how about a sweater that you bought a pattern for? In this case, you paid for the pattern and then you also bought yarn, and you made the sweater with your own two hands, using your own skill and creativity. Does that designer have a greater hold on the sweater than the designer of a store-bought sweater has on a manufactured one?

My answer is: of course not! In fact, if anything, she would have less of a claim, since you contributed as much (or more) to the Finished Object as she did.

But the more fundamental reason that the designer has no say in what you do with Finished Objects is that copyright does not apply to clothing. Not at all. Not to couture, not to knock-offs, not to hand-knit mittens.

If the copyright on the pattern does not extend to the actual knitted object in the first place (and it clearly doesn't), then the only Intellectual Property rights that the designer has is to the instructions. If she had made a sweater herself, with her own hands, using her own original ideas, that sweater would not be covered by any kind of copyright or other design rights. So how can the sweater you made give her some sort of rights?

The obvious answer, to me, is that it can't.

(Are we sure that copyright does not somehow subsist in the sweater? Is the sweater maybe a derivative work? I argue that it cannot be. If following the instructions were equivalent to copying the pattern, then it would be illegal to even make the sweater in the first place, which is absurd. And sweaters, no matter how they were created, are not ever copyrighted. So the designer's copyright cannot have been transferred into your sweater!)

So what does this mean? I think it means that if you have a legally-acquired pattern, you do not need anyone's permission to knit the item once, or a hundred times, anymore than you need permission from an author to read her book a hundred times.

And statements that say: "This pattern is for personal use only" do not carry any legal weight. Copyright law forbids you from making copies of the pattern, so if the statement is intended to mean "Don't give copies of this pattern your friends," it is true. If it is intended to mean "Don't give these mittens to your friends," it's not true.

And how about if the pattern directly states, "You may not sell objects knit from this pattern"?

Well, does the designer own rights to the mittens or diaper covers or sweaters you made using her pattern? The answer is no. She controls the pattern (ie the instructions) through her copyright. That copyright does not apply to actual items of clothing. So can she tell you what you can do with them? Legally, no, she can't.

But What About Licensing?
So far, we have discussed the fact that the design of items of clothing is not covered by copyright. This led us to the conclusion that, although a knitting pattern (words, images, charts, description, photos, etc.) is copyrighted by the designer, that copyright does not extend to the actual physical object that you may knit from it (assuming that it is clothing or a household item.)

Many designers, knowing this to be the case, have looked for a way to protect their design other than copyright. The most common work-around is to either simply tell you on the pattern that you must not sell objects made from it, or to formalize such a request as a "license," often referred to as a "cottage license."

The concept of a "cottage license" is that you, dear knitter, working at home in your own little cottage (or condo), are allowed to produce knitted objects, but the same permission would not be granted to a commercial manufacturer.

Here is an example of a designer who explains her "licenses." The designer is asking for a fee of $100 for "lifetime" permission to knit and  sell five items she designed: a Sheepy Sack (which is a free pattern that makes no mention of any restrictions on what you can do with the Sheepy Sacks you knit), Sheepy Pants (selling for $6.50), Sheepy Soakers, available for $5.75 as well as a skirt pattern ($12) and Bloomers ($5).

It appears that these are very nice, well-designed patterns, and there is no objection to the designer charging money for the patterns. This designer lives and works in the United States. Her patterns do not even include any pre-purchase information stating that she believes you need her permission to sell finished objects from them.

This is just an example, and this designer is no better or worse than many others out there. This was the first example that came up when I googled "cottage license."

The question is: does a designer have a legal (or ethical) right to charge you for a license allowing you to sell items that you knit, using a pattern that she gave you or sold you? Do you need such a license? Can she sell you such a license?

A person can only legally sell you what he or she owns. The old trick of selling some rube the Brooklyn Bridge is fraud for the simple reason that the guy doing the selling doesn't actually own the Brooklyn Bridge. Could he sell you a "license" that allows you unlimited use of the Brooklyn Bridge? A lifetime license to cross the Brooklyn Bridge? Not unless he owns the Brooklyn Bridge!

So here's the rub: Does the designer of baby pants own those baby pants that you knit? Does her copyright apply to those pants?

The answer again is No. Because clothing items in the US are not covered by copyright, there are no Intellectual Property rights that the designer owns except in the pattern itself. She could license you to produce copies of the pattern if she chose to. But she cannot avoid the implications of public domain (which applies to clothing design of every kind) by adding licensing language to it. She is attempting to sell you something that she does not own (the rights to a pair of baby pants.)

Still not convinced? Ok, well suppose that not just knitting designers, but actual manufacturers of clothing decided to "license" their clothing. They add a tag to your pair of jeans that says, "You may not sell these jeans. These jeans are licensed for your personal use only." Perhaps it bothers the designers and manufacturers of jeans to see their products sold at Goodwill for $7. They think the price should be higher, and they also think they should get 10% of it. Can they do that?

Of course not. (If they could, they would!)

Can the writer of a copyrighted book add a "license" that says that you may not re-sell the book? No. And this one has been decided by the Supreme Court. It's called the First Sale Doctrine, and it was decided back in 1908. In that case, a publisher attempted to control the price at which its books could be sold. The court said that Copyright did not give a seller any rights over what was done with an individual copy of a book that they sold, as long as the book itself was not reproduced.

But maybe making a sweater is making a "copy" of the copyrighted pattern? No. It can't mean that. Because sweaters are never copyrighted in the US. A copy of a pattern is still a pattern. A sweater is not a pattern, just as a map of England is not England.

So do you need permission or a license in order to make multiple items from a single pattern? No, you do not. And after you make those items, who owns them? You do. Does someone else own IP (Intellectual Property) rights in the items? No. They are not Intellectual Property. They are clothing. And you can sell clothing that you own, without any permission or license from anyone.

What Does the US Copyright Office Say about Selling Finished Objects?

Lest some think that I am going out on a limb by expressing the opinion that copyright protection does not extend to FO that are made from knitting patterns, I offer you an email from the Copyright Office in answer to a direct question on the subject. (I am not the original recipient of this email. It was posted by a knitter on ravelry.com):

Copyright in a pattern normally pertains to the pattern itself, i.e., to the written instructions, diagrams and/or pictures, not to the object that is constructed from the pattern.
If the pattern, however, includes original artwork that would be incorporated into the work that is made, then a person may need permission to use it commercially. An example of that would be a knitting pattern depicting original artwork. An example of the opposite would be a dress pattern: the dress made from the pattern is not subject to copyright protection.
Here are two examples where both patterns, i.e., the written instructions and artwork, are protected by copyright, but only one of the products made from the patterns would be protected.
1.) A pattern for a sweater made with standard knitting stitches, such as a cable stitch or a popcorn stitch, is protected by copyright; however, the sweater made from the pattern contains no copyrightable artwork because it consists of standard stitches, no matter how attractive the sweater is.
2.) On the other hand, a pattern for a sweater that depicts original artwork — let’s say a mountain scene with a deer — is protected both in the form of the pattern and in the form of the sweater. The artwork on the sweater is protected by copyright.
In the first instance, a person using the pattern can produce sweaters commercially, but not be infringing a copyright because the distribution of the sweaters is not distributing any copyrightable authorship.
In the second example, by distributing the sweaters, the person is also distributing copies of the original artwork and would normally need permission.

(I have added paragraphing, bolding and italics and numbers in order to make the distinctions a little easier to perceive. I have not changed any wording. Since this email was written in the course of employment by the US government, it is not itself subject to copyright.)

It is important to point out, as this reply does, that there can be copyrighted material in the form of knitwear. In the example given, an original image of a deer and a mountain created by a designer and then included in a knitting pattern would be copyrightable as artwork. That same artwork could be screen printed onto a t-shirt, printed on a mug, or made into a poster. Doing any of those things with another person's art work is an infringement of their copyright.

The distinction that Copyright law makes is that utilitarian objects, including all clothing design, is not subject to copyright, but artistic elements that are separable from, or at least conceptually separable from, the useful object can be copyrighted. So no one can copyright a mug, no matter how shapely. But they can copyright a picture that is applied to a mug.

Here's a legal document explaining the basic law and several cases drawn from it.

Here's another, slightly more light-hearted explanation of how current law treats clothing design and that discusses possible ways the law could be changed. (Until the law is changed--and it hasn't been as of 2012--no one should feel guilty for copying fashion design, which includes the design of knitted wearables.)

One more caveat: while sweaters, skirts, diaper covers, hats, mittens, socks, blankets, and so on are clearly not copyrightable in and of themselves, it is possible that some knitting, such as toys, could fall into the realm of sculpture rather than utilitarian objects, and so could be copyrighted as objects.

So where does all this leave us?

Patterns (instructions) for knitting are copyrighted, and should not be copied (except for making an extra copy for one’s own use). This is true even if the pattern is free. Only the owner of the copyright is authorized to make copies. Realistically, if you print out two copies of a free pattern from a website and share one with a friend, there is no harm done. But if you make a copy of a paid pattern for a friend, you are depriving the designer of income that is rightfully hers.

Once you have a legally-obtained copy of a pattern, you may use it as many times as you choose, and you may do whatever you want with the finished items of clothing or other useful items—including selling them. You do not need permission from the designer to donate them or sell them or anything else.

 Happy knitting!
Evelyn Uyemura


  1. Catching up on my reader...

    Problem is, this court upheld a "copyright" on red soled shoes if the tops are a different color. http://m.hollywoodreporter.com/fash-track/christian-louboutin-red-soles-copyright-368384

    He owns his style and his combination of elements.

  2. Hi brandilion,
    Actually, that case is about Trademark, not copyright. I now the reporter uses the word copyright in the article, but he is not correct. It is Trademark that was being argued in this case.


  3. Thank you, this has been very helpful in clearing up my feelings on this subject - I have patterns that I LOVE, but I can only make so many for family and friends, but I continue to enjoy making them, so....

    I think the only thing holding one back from selling an item made from a pattern marked by a designer not to sell items made from it would be more a incorrectly perceived moral obligation. But I paid for that pattern, or simply fell deeply in love with it, and then went on to make some of my own adjustments to make it in a certain form - instead of one color, multiple ones in a pattern, for example - and thus, it's mine anyhow. But, they can't tell me what I do with what I make, so...selling them it is!