Rip-offs and Licensing

Tonight I attended an intimate little gathering at the Stitch Lounge in San Francisco to promote the new Sublime Stitching book by Jenny Hart. If you’re a member of the craft community, you probably recognize items from her hip embroidery empire. I recently bought some Sublime Stitching materials for my sister’s birthday (that she loved) so I was excited to meet Ms. Hart. She was very generous, friendly and forthcoming.

Everyone who was at the table tonight owns and runs their own creative business. Unsurprisingly, talk soon turned to rip-offs. A lot of good points were made, and I’d like to share a few with you:

  1. Some people steal without remorse. Many big companies send scouts to small events like local craft fairs, looking for ideas to steal. Many of them have no qualms about ripping off small designers or artists, because the artists either a) never find out, b) don’t have the courage and/or resources to pursue legal action c) require such a small settlement that it is still financially worth it to be shady. The only way to stop this, is for every ripped-off artist to sue. If you’ve been ripped off by a bigger company, I’ll bet it wouldn’t be too hard to find other people who have been similarly robbed through web sites like Etsy or Craftster. Then everyone can pool their resources and file a much more dangerous class-action suit.
  2. Just because you bought it does not mean you own it. This is often confusing for people. It certainly was for me. If you buy a font, for example, you are buying a license to use it, including on things you might sell. You can use it to create printed note cards, for example, and selling those note cards is well within the terms of that font license. But different licenses use different terms. It is usually not okay, for example, to buy a knitting pattern for a scarf and then sell the scarf you made from it. Similarly, it is usually not okay to buy an embroidery pattern and then release a line of dishtowels you made using those patterns, even if you made them all by hand, designed the colors and placement of the images yourself, etc.
  3. It’s easy to borrow legally. Many designers, including Sublime Stitching, will let you license their designs. Though fees vary, a standard licensing agreement usually involves paying the artist about 5% of the gross sales of any product on which you used their design. So if those dishtowels sell for $10 apiece, every time you sell one, you would pay 50 cents to the designer of the embroidery patterns you used. That said, a licensing agreement is just that — a signed agreement between the licensor (the artist) and the licensee (you with the dishtowel line) that often includes certain conditions of use. Maybe the designer only intended for them to go on baby products, not dishtowels. Maybe your dishtowels are made using toxically produced fabric, or are just plain ugly. In any case, it is the artist who gets to decide whether or not and how their designs are used.

I think that’s enough for today. More on intellectual property in posts to come.