Everything you need to know about selling products made from someone else’s knitting pattern
So, you want to sell your knitting. Great! But now you are unsure whether you can actually sell items made from a copyrighted pattern. Is that allowed? And what if the pattern is for free does this change things? In both cases, the answer is probably, yes you can!
Since things are often a bit more complicated than they appear, we will take a deep dive into the legalities. What is allowed and what is not? And once you were able to tick off all the checkboxes, then the path is clear (well, you still may need to figure out how to price your hand-knitted items but that’s a different story).
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I am no attorney and this is NO legal advice. You may live in a different country, the respective designer might live in yet another place, and the scope of your business might be different as well. This article is meant to serve as a first overview so you can do your own research. If you need specific legal advice, please contact an attorney in your area.
#1 Knitting patterns and copyright
Quite a lot of patterns actually have a little section that says something along the line: “You are not allowed to sell finished items based on this pattern”. This can scare a beginner and annoy a more accomplished knitter. But even if there is no such provision, you might still be in doubt, right?
Well, the first thing we need to settle here is that there is no automatic copyright on (knitting) instructions. If you write/record any unique text or take/paint/draw any pictures, it will be almost always automatically copyrighted – at least in all countries that signed the Berne Convention – without filling any forms, adding a watermark or running through any application process. This automatic copyright exists to protect artists of any kind in countries like the U.S., Canada, and all countries in Europe (except Kosovo), etc.
Instructions, on the other hand, are, by their nature, meant to be used. Buying a pattern and then not being able to use it would be, in most circumstances quite meaningless.
There is the U.S Supreme Court ruling Baker v. Selden supporting exactly that: “The very object of publishing a book on science or the useful arts is to communicate to the world the useful knowledge which it contains. But this object would be frustrated if the knowledge could not be used without incurring the guilt of piracy of the book.” […] “the use of the art is a totally different thing from a publication of the book explaining it”.
Essentially the Supreme Court said: if you write a book, nobody is allowed to republish the book without written consent but everyone is allowed to apply to knowledge it contains for their own enterprises freely – provided that there is no patent or trademark.
But the law goes even further than that. Most constructions are so universal that a) everyone should be allowed to benefit from these useful objects and b) it’s very easy to arrive at them independently.
Imagine, if someone was able to copyright the instructions for a plain vanilla sock pattern. Then nobody would ever be able to elaborate on that without written permission. Or they were able to patent the instructions for the knit or purl stitch. Well, that would be a world where nobody would be able to knit freely or use any other arts or science.
Legally this is called the threshold of originality. You can’t just add 3+5=8 and get an automatic copyright for writing it out. Or do a simple knit-purl knitting stitch pattern and call it yours exclusively. This is the very reason why Elizabeth Zimmerman coined the term un-venting instead of inventing. Over the years, a lot of knitters arrived at the same techniques – and even designs – independently.
And very few knitting patterns surpass this threshold of originality – at least in most Western legislation. While some countries might be stricter than others, most instructions are simply too generic. The designer made use of age-old techniques and templates, it’s nothing they spun out of thin air. And is, while beautiful, rarely something you’ve truly never seen before.
This means, in almost all cases, you will be probably able to sell items based on a knitting pattern simply because there is no copyright of the actual instruction to begin with that would limit the use of the instructions.
Intarsia projects, that prominently feature pictures, might be the only common exception. There it could be argued that, while the utilitarian aspects of the base instructions are not protected by copyright, the actual picture is. So you could knit the project with a different picture and sell it but maybe not with the original one (standard fair isle or mosaic patterns, on the other hand, probably don’t fall under this exemption since they are typically “only” a combination/permutation of readily available templates).
IMPORTANT: The pictures and the actual prose text of the pattern probably DO fall under copyright in almost all cases. A lot of patterns will include a line that says “copyright 2019 by XYZ” to highlight this fact. So, don’t ever use these to promote the sale of your items without consent or copy them in any way!
If the line is not included, that typically still doesn’t mean you can use the pattern freely. As a creator, you typically get the copyright through creating, not through writing it out or attaching a watermark. So-called Creative Free Commons licenses are an exception but that needs to be spelled out specifically and cannot be assumed.
A) Check for patents and trademarks
It’s very important to note that it IS possible to apply for a patent or register a design as a trademark. In the knitting or crochet space, I haven’t come across this very often – especially when it concerns hand knitting. There are a couple of patents on machine knitting technique designs (here is one example for glove knitting).
However, if there is a trademark or patent, it should be very apparent in the pattern itself. Then the title would say something like “Perfect fit® socks” or so. For if the owner doesn’t continue to use the trademark, it might actually expire. And if the owner doesn’t indicate it is indeed patented or a registered trademark, the offender might always claim that this was an honest mistake in a lawsuit.
Conversely, this means, barring such a patented design, even if the pattern says “do not sell items” you might be able to do so anyway (You still might want to quickly check a patent/trademark database if one exists).
B) EU-Design rights
So far we only discussed copyright. However, there are also design rights – especially within the EU (as covered by EU Regulation 6/2000). Basically, this law gives designers protection of 3 years on their designs automatically. This is called an “unregistered community design”.
The designs that are rewarded this protection need to have an “individual character” and they need to be “novel”. In a knitting context this probably means: If you picked a triangular shawl and designed it in seed stitch instead of garter stitch, the novelty threshold might probably not be reached.
It’s also important to underline that this European design law should not be confused with international copyright law and will not offer protection globally (you would have to go through the World Intellectual Property Organization). Moreover, it only protects dead copies but not similar items. That’s the very reason why brands like Zara, Shein & Co typically get away with selling garments that look almost but not quite like the things you see on the runway in Paris or Milano.
So, if you are a European designer, your designs are novel, a European store decides to sell exact copies of your pattern, and your design has been published less than 3 years ago, you probably could take them to court. If any of these items is untrue or no longer true, there is no automatic protection.
C) Social media backlash
One thing you need to consider is the internet and cancel culture. A lot of knitting and crochet designers have a huge following on social media these days. And if you position yourself against their explicit wishes, they might call you out. (E.g. I have 140,000 subscribers on youtube. If you cross me and hurt my business, then chances are high I will mention it. Not even out of spite or sheer malice. Sharing my thoughts is literally my business model).
And in these cases, you might be facing a huge backlash from loyal followers who don’t care all that much whether the law is on your side or not. And then your small business will be confronted with hundreds or thousands of threatening emails, calls, and whatnot. So, definitely do keep that in mind.
D) Do I need to add attribution to my listings?
While, strictly speaking, you do not need to reference the designer, doing so will put you on the safe side. If there is a link or any clear and conspicuous attribution, a designer will typically look at you with a lot more goodwill.
And clear and conspicuous means, in this context, that anyone who views the listing/post on social media will have a very easy path to find the source. Put yourself in the shoes of the designer. Will they look at your listing and say: “Well, maybe this will increase my pattern sales or visits to my website”. Or did you only add a non-clickable note “design by designer XYZ” at the veeeery end of your listing that nobody is ever going to see, let alone follow up.
On a side note: Informing the designer of your plans has the benefit that they might actually help you promote your sales. If your product shots are cute, they might re-share your Instagram stories, etc.
#2 The scope of the contract
Another thing we have to look at in this context is contract law. Whenever you download or buy a pattern, you enter a contract with the designer (sometimes via an intermediary platform such as Ravelry). Whether it’s a paid or a free pattern typically does not matter. There is, legally speaking, a contract. Think of it like this:
I give you my email address/money and you give me a pattern. Deal?
And typically you form that contract within the already existing framework of the local law. This might cover refunds/returns, delivery times, warranties, etc. These are the implied terms and you will typically find some of these in the Terms of Service of the business or the FAQs – redundant as this may be.
Since the provision that you may not sell items from the pattern is probably (as argued above) in opposition to public policy, one could argue that the respective designer needs to highlight the fact during the offering process and let you specifically agree to said provision. The designer will have a very difficult time arguing that it is still binding if the fact is only revealed AFTER your acceptance because this is probably nothing that was implied by virtue of custom or law. This is even more important in this context since patterns or any other digital download typically cannot be returned.
To put it quite plainly: Based on the law, you have no reason to expect that you cannot sell items made from a pattern. So, if the designer doesn’t want you to do that, they need to tell you upfront in very clear terms and have you accept these terms. This could be a checkbox right before check-out or something similarly conspicuous that requires your active consent.
Caveat: If it’s a free pattern, one could argue that the contract you form is a bit looser. While you might have entered it based on wrong assumptions (i.e. you thought you could sell items made from the pattern), accessing this provision is easier and so is returning the pattern/canceling the contract. Still, without your active and documented consent, it’s probably still difficult to prove that you agreed to these terms.
#3 Copyrighted/trademarked Images
There is one last little bit that should concern you as a hand knitter: While the instructions might not be copyrighted/patented, certain parts of a design might still be.
What comes to mind are characters from popular movies/cartoons/games. Say, you want to knit a sweater and embellish it with a Disney character on the front using the intarsia technique (say Mickey Mouse or Elsa). Or you want to knit a little toy/doll that looks like some character from Star Wars or the Marvel Universe
For private purposes, you are probably more than allowed to do that. There are even official Disney knitting books or Harry Potter Knitting books to help you along (Note: I earn a small commission for purchases made through links in this article). Again, these books would be meaningless, if you couldn’t knit the items.
However, since certain designs in these books may be copyrighted/have a registered trademark, you will probably not be able to sell the finished items without prior consent simply because Disney, Warner Brothers, etc. own the rights to use and sell these things. Disney is known for upholding their rights in several lawsuits but they are certainly not alone.
Your little Etsy shop or so might be only a small fish in a big pond but if they tacitly allow you to use their copyright, this could set a precedence for bigger business. If trademarks are not defended they might enter the public domain.
#4 Considerations for designers
Here at the end of this article, I would like to add an appeal to designers: Kindly consider removing any provision in your patterns that limit the usage of the pattern.
I, of all people, should understand why you feel protective of your work. After all, it does take hours upon hours to create a pattern. There are endless hours spent on creating and knitting the design, and more hours spent on compiling the pdf, tech-editing, test-knitting, and marketing it. And of course, you don’t want others to exploit your hard work. Even as it is, it’s often difficult to eke out a living with pattern designing.
But there is another side to this. Most people selling hand-knit items are not exactly making a fortune with it either. Quite to the contrary. Typical prices for handknitting are way below minimum wage. Often, it’s barely over the actual material & tool prices. I have seen socks and hats at fairs/markets for as little as 20 USD and maybe you have, too.
You might feel that someone is taking advantage of you and your creativity. The reality is typically a little more sobering. I doubt there is more than a handful of people that make a living from selling their hand-knitting. And typically those focus on super chunky, fast-to-finish projects.
That’s why, at the end of each of my patterns, you will find a little box that says:
No part of this pattern may be reproduced, copied, or forwarded in any form. This pattern is supplied for your personal and non-commercial use only. This pattern was first published in (insert date). As long as you link to my website and give credits, small business owners are welcome to sell finished objects based on this pattern.
99% of the people who purchase your patterns just want to knit them for themselves or their family – with no intention ever to sell things. This is your target audience. These are your money makers. And not the 1% with business aspirations.
Of course, there are the more blatant and highly irritating cases. I’ve seen people who built their whole Etsy business around patterns from a certain designer. Or big brands stealing your ideas and suddenly you see your hat or sweater at Zara, Shein, etc. However, from a legal point of view, there is probably little to nothing you can do against it. So, why bother in the first place?