The short answer is yes. But as with most questions and answers, there are always exceptions, terms and conditions. In other words, you should still consider important things such as copyright, permission and the creators’ rights.
What are some of the creators’ rights? Well, their creations are the result of their hard work, research and creative expression. They’ve invested huge amounts of time and effort in producing their crafts (this also applies to knitting patterns and original knitting designs). Also, their creations are a huge part of their identities (we’ll get back to this later).
It’s similar to the famous characters in movies and comic books. We can’t just include a famous character into our knitted creation. After all, companies invested decades and probably billions of dollars in making, marketing and branding the character and the movies. It’s also the result of probably thousands of man-hours and the collective effort of thousands of people (directly or indirectly). These people may have been deriving their income from ticket sales and merchandise. So if we’re reproducing their work through our creations without the rightful permissions (e.g. including a famous character’s design into our knitted sweater), we’re actually infringing on the rights of those people.
Note: It’s a useful way to think about how patents, copyright and trademarks work. However, it’s best to get competent legal advice (e.g. Australian Copyright Council Legal Advice) and the latest information especially if you’re planning to use a pattern (or you made something based on a pattern) for commercial purposes.
Supporting the creators and businesses
Earlier we mentioned that crafts and creations are the result of the hard work of the artists (plus the time they spent in creating an original design). In fact, the Australian Copyright Council has the following values (from their website):
- defending creators’ rights in their creative expression
- promoting a thriving, diverse, sustainable, creative Australian culture
- providing easy, accessible, and affordable legal advice to the creative community
- balancing the interests of creators, consumers and service providers
Notice that the first item is about defending the creators’ rights and if we pay attention to the second part (promoting a thriving, diverse, sustainable, creative Australian culture), we can better understand the importance of the creators’ rights and supporting their work. After all, it’s impossible for the creative Australian culture to thrive if people are not getting financial rewards from their hard work. They’re also spending their time in producing something of value. The world has become a richer place because of their work and our creative expression is one of the few qualities that make us human (arts can help us think beyond survival and find meaning in living).
It’s also difficult to promote diversity in crafts and creations if the artists find that there are no means for them to sustain their work. The essential needs should be covered first (food, water, shelter) before they can produce something of value. Also, it gets easier to foster creativity and focus on bigger and undreamt of things if the basics are already covered. Creators find satisfaction just to see their completed craft (and the happiness when their creations delight other people), still it might not be enough to sustain their work.
We might better understand this by looking at how pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies work. First, they invest billions of dollars (which may come from the private sector and tax) into laboratory equipment and attract the best scientific minds on the planet. Then, they will invest years (often decades) before they’ll be able to make a breakthrough. It might take at least 10 years for a drug (or new medical treatment method) to be developed and approved for prescription.
Next thing that happens is that the company applies a patent to protect the results of their hard work. This is to prevent other companies from exploiting the new breakthrough for a certain period. This also allows the company that did all the hard work to recoup their investment and possibly allocate more financial resources in coming up with more breakthroughs. Although the breakthrough (if released to the public patent-free and allowed the competitors to reproduce and sell the medicine) will benefit the entire human race, this will actually remove the incentive from doing scientific work that will further benefit mankind.
Can I sell my knitted items?
Our examples above have been focused on movies, comic books and medicines. We talked about the appropriate rights and incentives whether it’s about scientific breakthrough or creative expression.
When it comes to knitting, it’s also useful to think about those rights and incentives. After all, there are many people behind the scenes who make a living through crafts (including the people who manage and deliver the supplies plus the ones who spend time and money publishing and putting the works within the reach of the public). Keep in mind that the works are often a result of collective effort.
What about you? Before you sell the garments you made using someone else’s pattern (either online or hardcopy), it’s recommended to first contact the publisher and ask for permission. You can use the pattern for private or domestic use but it’s a different thing if you’re planning to sell the garments you made (you are likely infringing the exclusive rights of the copyright owner).
What if you changed a bit of the pattern or design so that you can avoid copyright infringement? According to the Australian Copyright Council: “...it is not what is changed that is relevant, but whether or not the part that is copied is an important or distinctive part of the original work.”
Another concern that comes often is about having your own original design. Can your work be protected by copyright? How do you prove that a design is your own? It’s a long and complex legal process (unless the design is average, e.g. the basic design of the T-shirt is not subject to copyright). Many cases are resolved through negotiation (e.g. through payment, percentage, partnership and/or stopping the reproduction of work). It can be difficult to prove who the owner of the original design is but just in case, it’s good to always keep copies of your drafts and drawings.
It’s always best to seek competent legal advice if you’re planning to do something serious and if you have doubts. But before you get serious, it’s helpful to get some feedback regarding your creations if there’s indeed a potential. This way you’ll remove most of the risk before investing a huge amount of your effort and time.