License to Knit

I am often asked “Why don’t you sell your knitting?” There are many factors that complicate the sale of hand-knitted items, but my biggest obstacle to date has been copyright. At the bottom of most knitting patterns there is a copyright notice. The language of these notices range from the generic “for non-commercial use only, all rights reserved” to the more specific inclusion of “this pattern may not be used to produce items for commercial purposes.” There has been much debate in the knitting community about copyright, namely surrounding the selling of items made from patterns. It’s hard to misunderstand the intentions of the patterns that specifically forbid the practice in their copyright notice, but for the more generic notices it can be argued that the copyright only applies to the sale of the pattern. Some even argue that patterns which explicitly prohibit selling items don’t have any legal standing to do so.

Let me be clear, I really, really do not want to get into yet another copyright debate here. I don’t know whether or not I could actually be sued for selling things knitted from a pattern that I did not design myself. What I do know is that the legality of it is questionable at best. What’s even more important to know is that the practice is generally not accepted in the knitting community. Sure, you might be able to get away with it, but if you do and word gets out, people will not like you. Publishers will not like you. Editors will not like you. Designers will NOT like you. If you want to succeed in this business you NEED people to like you.

When I was a brand new knitter I did not understand these concepts. I saw the copyright notices, but I couldn’t quite comprehend their meaning. Back then I don’t think I ever came across the more specific language prohibiting the sale of items, so I was left to guess at the scope intended with the more generic copyright language. I had some vague idea that selling things that I did not design might be slightly illegal, but at the time I thought it shouldn’t be illegal. The patterns I was used to seeing were very simple and typically offered for free. How could anyone have the gall to prevent me from selling a garter stitch poncho made under the direction of a free pattern? I also don’t think I had a concept of “designers” back then – also due to the simple and free patterns I had access to, I’m sure. There wasn’t much personality to be seen in a stockinette capelet, so I think I assumed most patterns were not the work of a single designer’s artistic vision, but were the product of faceless yarn “corporations” just looking to sell you more yarn. Maybe that is how some of those early patterns were designed, I don’t know. It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Vogue Knitting that I started to see individual voices in the knitting designs. When the first copy of Twist Collective came out I finally got it. Those knitting patterns are designed by people. Selling things made from their designs wouldn’t be “sticking it to the man” it would be hurting people. From then on I resolved to never even consider selling something I did not design myself.

Catkin – my first encounter with Carina Spencer

Enter Carina Spencer. One day I was poking around on her site, downloading a free copy of Regina and looking at all of her other beautiful patterns (including Catkin, pictured above), when I noticed the words “Licensing Info” in the sidebar. Intrigued, I clicked on it, and within seconds my mind was blown. For a fee she will allow knitters to sell items made from her patterns! She gets paid for her designs, the knitter gets paid for their work, non-knitters get access to quality knitting, no one gets sued, and everyone is happy! THIS IS GENIUS!!

Carina Spencer is clearly a fantastically creative person, but somehow I doubt she is the first designer to come up with this idea. There are probably other designers who offer licenses to knitters, I just haven’t found them yet. I wonder how many designers are even aware of this option? While the practice of selling items made from others’ designs is generally unaccepted, some designers are fine with it as long as you ask them for permission first. I just thought it was a bit tacky to email a designer and ask to use their creative vision so I could turn a profit without offering them anything in return. Maybe that tackiness could be reduced by offering to negotiate a licensing agreement of a sort.

Now when someone asks me, “Why don’t you sell your knitting?” I can tell them, “Maybe I will, but I need to get licensed first.”

Catkin – modeled by Mark Twain

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12 thoughts on “License to Knit

  1. Have you gone through the process of licensing? I’d also stumbled across Carina Spencer’s website through her Regina pattern, and was intrigued by the licensing section.

    • Not yet. The only thing I’ve knit of hers so far is Catkin and I want to get a couple more of her patterns done to show her before I apply. I’m knitting a bunch of her patterns for the Ravellenic Games, so I should have some more done in a couple of weeks!

  2. Interesting article. It’s akin to the patents in the technology world. You use something in one of your products that is patented by someone else, you have to pay the royalties to the party that hold the patent.

    As you said, it’s possible that most designers don’t know that this option is available to them. Maybe you should introduce others to the idea? You could email the designer, point them to Carina Spencer’s website and see what happens. Just a thought.

    • I didn’t know that about the tech industry, that’s a great comparison!

      Yeah, if I do approach other designers who don’t seem to have a licensing option I plan to use Carina Spencer’s site as an example. Thanks!

  3. A fantastic knitter in Alaska is knitting something for me, from a well known designer. I bought handspun wool sourced in Italy, sent her the wool, and I pay her in buttons. I’m thrilled, she’s thrilled and the spinner in Italy is ecstatic. What’s not to like with this situation?

    • The designer may not be as thrilled. For many designers, that is how they put food on the table. It’s important that they be compensated for their work and if someone else loves their design so much that they want to have it made for them, shouldn’t the designer be paid for their idea? If this is a one time deal and the knitter doesn’t regularly sell things knit from other’s designs it may not be a big deal, especially if it’s a barter arrangement. It can be a slippery slope though. If bartering for it is okay, why not pay cash? If doing it once is okay, why not do it again? Why not open up an Etsy shop and sell dozens of them? If that’s okay, what’s stopping a clothing chain from mass-producing it and selling it in their stores? That DOES happen, see link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/26/urban-outfitters-steal_n_867604.html

      Whether or not it’s okay to sell things made from others’ designs is a complicated issue and I don’t profess to know all the legal stuff involved. I do know that it CAN interfere with someone else’s livelihood and if that’s even a slight possibility I’d rather stay away from it.

      What’s more important to me is that the crafting community doesn’t condone it. If that knitter in Alaska is trying to make a living off of her crafting and be regarded as a professional in the industry, then that should be her main concern as well. If word gets out that she’s profiting from other people’s designs her reputation could be damaged and she could lose customers, and possible employers or supporters may refuse to work with her. This is a very social media savvy community, so word can spread fast and far. Here is a great breakdown of how quickly that can happen (granted this example involves a major clothing store, but I’ve seen similar things happen with less well-known parties): http://www.myaimistrue.com/2011/05/urban-outfitters-ripoff-trending-topic/

      • No, no, no! The knitter in Alaska bought the pattern, so the designer has been paid – I don’t knit, she does. She doesn’t make buttons, I do. It’s a simple exchange and a wonderful relationship – I love hearing from her. She does not sell her work, has no interest in selling but is a pure yarn snob and loves knitting!

        • Ah, that sounds more like a swap then which is usually understood as “personal use” – the fact that she doesn’t normally sell things makes that extra clear.

          You MAKE buttons? That sounds awesome! Is there anywhere I can see pictures?

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