Sewing pattern copyright law – myths debunked

Do you know the law about the copyright on sewing patterns and the things you make from those patterns. Don't believe everything you read! Here are the facts.

There were a couple of articles in July that had a lot of interest, both about sewing to sell.  How to price your work and a round up of projects that are good to sell.

Sewing to sell. How to price your work. Several different methods discussed and a handy worksheet to give you a range of selling prices.

Ideas and tips for sewing for selling. What do you need to consider and links to some great projects that could be good profit-makers.

Good to see so many people were interested in this subject, but at the same time I got such a lot of emails telling me that it was illegal to sell things you had made from either someone else's sewing pattern, or from licensed fabric.  Or that you had to buy a licence from the pattern designer if you wanted to sell an item made from their pattern, known as a cottage licence.  Or that if you want to make more than one item (such as 3 matching bridesmaid dresses) that you have to buy a new pattern for each person!  Sadly it only proves that there is a lot of mis-information out there which is holding you and your business back!

So I got in touch with a couple of contacts, one of whom is a lawyer, and another who has a lot of personal experience in copyright law, and scoured the internet looking for definitive advice on this subject.  There is too much nonsense out there.  I had to wade through a lot of people who were apparently stating a fact but in the end were just really passing on hearsay and opinion without any basis in fact at all, and thereby just perpetuating the myth that you cannot sell certain items.

I'm trying to put the record straight here in an easy to understand way, but at the same time it is a VERY complicated area and opinions, even legal opinions, can sometimes vary.  Please therefore make your own enquiries with your lawyer if you wish to set up any kind of business and think these sort of restrictions might apply to you and your products.  Different laws may also apply to different regions of the world.  Check your local laws.

Sewing pattern Copyright law – myths debunked

I'm aware that some of which I state here below may be controversial, and not everyone will either agree with me or like what I say.  Of course as usual all comments and feedback are welcome.  If you do make a statement of fact that relates to the law regarding sewing patterns and copyright, that contradicts any of these statements below, please provide a source in law where such information can be found and verified.  Saying this isn't true because I read it on the internet, only provides even more confusion and passes on inaccurate information which is something we are trying to avoid.

3822687027_622ce9d1c2photo credit: Disagreement via photopin (licence)

1 – If you make something yourself from a commercially available sewing pattern, it is illegal to sell it because of copyright laws.

Not true.  A sewing pattern itself may be subject to copyright law, but that is only the pattern illustrations, diagrams, written instructions and the pattern envelope art (sometimes, again there are limitations).  That means that you cannot simply photocopy or scan in the sewing pattern and then sell copies of it.  Naturally, I'm sure you wouldn't do that.  Although if you look on Etsy there are plenty of seemingly illegal copies of sewing/knitting patterns and even scanned copies of whole books on there.  But that's another matter for another day…

You CAN sell things that you make from sewing patterns, with only minor limitations (see later).  A pattern is simply that – a template to follow to create a uniform item.  You add your own artistic flare to what you create using that template.  What you make is your property and is yours to do with as you will.

Will this happen if you sell what you sew? Absolutely not.

In legal-ese.  Patterns for clothing and other useful items generally are not copyrightable. See Supreme Court – Baker v Selden, 101 U.S. 99, (1878).  Even if patterns were copyrightable, the product made from the pattern would not be covered  by the copyright. see Baker v Selden, (1878). Copyright owners only have the rights defined under copyright law and cannot make statements that restrict the subsequent use of their product once they have sold it. see Supreme Court – Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus, 210 U.S. 339, (1908)

As you can see, these Supreme Court rulings established certain factors over 100 years ago, and those have not changed since that time.

You might enjoy this interesting TED Talk about copyright in the fashion industry that explains how utilitarian items cannot be subject to copyright.

So if I saw a cat-walk dress I loved, I could create a pattern for how to make a similar item and you could all sew up similar dresses, no problem. That's how the high-street stores are able to create copies of designer clothing.

2 – If you buy an ‘indie' pattern and then find right at the end it says for personal use only, or not for commercial use etc, then you aren't allowed to sell any items you make using that pattern.

Not true.  These terms are trying to impose a contract between the pattern seller and the buyer.  But for a contract to be legally binding, both parties have to be fully aware of all of the terms of that contract and both expressly agree to them before entering into that contract – at the point of the purchase of the pattern.

In legal-ese. Unless the purchaser agrees to the restriction before the sale. the limitations on the product do not apply.  (Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus) The non-commercial limitation is not legally binding upon the purchaser because the manufacturer lacks the legal standing to make such demands.

3 – What about the designers who want to charge you for a ‘licence' to sell what you made from their pattern? 

Angel licences, sometimes called cottage licences, are agreements between two parties. If you purchase the pattern without first agreeing to limitations the same applies as in #2. These licences are attempts by designers to get around copyright law.  Don't fall for it and pay out money for a licence you don't need and isn't worth anything.

If a pattern designer expresses their wish that you do not sell items created from the pattern, then you may decide to simply use another pattern, there are lots out there.  Don't waste your time and money on pattern designers who are overly-restrictive or unco-operative.

5488454359_39be14506bphoto credit: Pattern via photopin (licence)
 

4 – You can't sell items made with ‘licensed' fabric, such as Dr Who fabric.  That's illegal and the BBC will come after you for making forgeries, illegal copies of their products or going outside of the licence agreement for the fabric.

Not necessarily true.  Licensed fabric means the design was licensed by the rights owner to be manufactured. The licence is between those two parties, not between the manufacturer and the fabric buyer.  There is no license on the use of the fabric as long as the user insures that when selling the items it is very clear to any potential purchaser that the product is not an official licensed product but rather made from licensed fabric. We suggest users include a Disclaimer when advertising anything made in this way.

Read more about the use of licensed fabrics here. Are there ‘restrictions' printed in the selvege edge of your fabric?  These restrictions aren't legally binding on the fabric purchaser – read more about that here.

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5 – What about those designers who insist you ‘credit' them by adding a notice to your sales pages and a tag to the item saying it was made with their pattern? 

Depends where you live.  American copyright law does not require the original author be given credit as you describe. European copyright law does require attribution but Congress declined to add that to American copyright law.  Their demands for credit are not legally enforceable.

6 – You must purchase a pattern for EVERY item you make.

Not true.  Patterns are reusable and there is nothing in the law that allows any pattern designer/manufacturer to set such a limit on the number of items that can be produced from the pattern, even if they are items of clothing intended for different people.  Imagine if you had two daughters and wanted to make them matching dresses – why would you need to buy two patterns?  The same applies even if you are sewing items to sell.

Coming up next

I'll be following up with my opinion in the next article about why I think pattern designers and companies try to put these restrictions on their products.  I'll also be happy to tell you more about what is and isn't allowed with So Sew Easy patterns too – basically that's just common sense.  You know what's right and wrong!

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246 Responses to Sewing pattern copyright law – myths debunked

  1. This is very interesting. I am a designer, as well as a maker of other people’s designs. I was wondering about patterns that are available online that can only be downloaded on a pdf when purchased. I have one of these that has a copyright notice on every page with my name added to it. Yet there is a free online version available. While I am very respectful that copying other’s patterns and distributuing them is unethical and illegal, I am wondering about when one adds comments on a craft forum where you might explain how you tackled the pattern and corrected any misprints or confusing terminology; for others who wish to make the same project? How might this fall into the copyright remit? many thanks

  2. Charlene says:

    I have a design in mind to make a chemotherapy t-shirt for kids with cancer. Would not mind if others would like to make these shirts for charity. Would not want them to be sold for profit or that a company would mass produce for profit. This would strictly be used to be given to hospitals to distribute to the kids. Would I need a copyright or would I need to get a patent to prevent the sale of these shirts? Please note I have not seen anything like this idea out on the market. Already have donated some of these shirts to a local children’s hospital. The kids and nurses love them.

    • Willow says:

      If I’m not mistaken, you need to Trade Mark or copyright your image (nor the shirts). Then no one will have the right to use it except you. You can sell this right, but I believe that means you give up the right to use it even though you created it. Another option is to license it, like the above mentioned Doctor Who materials.

      I could be wrong (it is very late), but it’s a place to start. Good luck!

  3. Erin Stewart says:

    Quick question on point #3. You say that designers should require people to buy commercial licenses in order to see items made from the pattern. But then you say you might as well just use another pattern instead. My question is WHY would I need to find another pattern? From the rest of the article, it sounds like the pattern creator can’t stop you from making and selling items anyway… so can’t you just ignore their insistence on a licensing fee, purchase the pattern, and use it anyway? I mean it might be bad manners I suppose, but legally there’s not really anything they can do about it right?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      That point refers to mass production, you will always be liable for using a pattern and sending it to be mass produced. is like downloading music without paying for it.

  4. Sandy Weaver says:

    Thank you for clearing up the copyright laws. I was told a few years ago that quilt show entries had to get permission from the designer to enter a quilt made from their pattern due to copyright laws. I found the rule to be rather absurd considering that some designers are not easy to contact and the entries are for show not for sale. I would think designers would be happy for the exposure from just having their name added to the tag’s description. I haven’t been to a quilt show recently, but I am hoping that rule has been overruled!

  5. Fran says:

    In a nutshell if you make say a Tilda doll and alter a part of it when making the doll and then sell it, you are not breaking the law?

  6. Tom says:

    I’m interested in your take on this – I am ready to sell patterns of my design for a bag the shape/image of which is internationally registered – as rights-holder for the shape I am limiting the use of the pattern to the buyer only who themselves can make and sell as many as they like but not any form of commercial production involving redistribution of the pattern and templates to others without authorization. This condition of sale will be clear to purchasers at the time of purchase. I think that this is both legal and reasonable – do you agree though?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Tom, what you are proposing is a normal agreement between the designer and the manufacturer. So I totally agree with you.

  7. Sandra Holloway says:

    I appreciate this article very much. As a courtesy and to have a written authorization to use the patterns of designers I admire. I have emailed several designers. Some grant unrestricted use. Others have granted permission to create and sell limited numbers of their patterns. Some have made restrictions I will not agree to accept. Others have ignored my requests altogether. Most want credit for their designs to appear somehow with the finished item.

    Anyone or any company that would try to restrict the use of something I purchased will no longer earn my business. This is

    Isn’t the point of a “pattern” to use it to create something completely new? If you don’t want others to use to produce or create a new object, then simply don’t sell it. Keep the “design” and don’t create a “pattern.” The two concepts, design and pattern, are mutually exclusive.

    I have original designs that I have not published into patterns to sell. They are not available for others to buy. If I want to sell the pattern, I would never presume to accept payment, then try to tell the purchaser what they could or could not do with the pattern I sold to them.

    If someone thinks they can copy my designs from a photo, good luck to them. And if they spend the time to try to decipher it from a picture, then I guess they have earned to opportunity to sew it. I doubt I would pursue it.

    Ophelia Love April 18, 2017, above: I could not agree with you more when you make the statement,

    “I think it’s a tad ludicrous to think that the actual maker of an item should credit the pattern maker, the fabric maker & whoever else, because by the time you are done there, you may as well also credit your sewing machine, your thread & every other component that made that item possible.”

    And BJ, January 6, 2017, above: Your analogy using architecture is spot on, in my opinion.

  8. Ophelia Love says:

    I can see the point on crediting the source as it’s an advantage to the pattern maker. Those looking, but not buying now know where to find the pattern to make it themselves. As a buyer’s perspective, this is disadvantageous, as you *want* to sell your finished products, not be a source to assist people to locate patterns. I can tell you for sure that I have used the “credit” as a way to get around buying a finished product. Searching & sifting through all available patterns is work & I am not going to bother searching for a pattern on a finished product, particularly if I am unsure one is out there. I sew from my own patterns, as I like to draft. I can’t crochet to save my soul though. I have tried. So if I find something I love, I buy it…..unless….I can find the pattern. In that case, I can buy the pattern & have my aunt crochet it because she enjoys it & I pay her. She however isn’t going to wing it from a photo the way I do with sewing…so if i can’t locate the pattern design, then I am way more likely to purchased the finished product. AND as someone who drafts patterns for my own personal use, I have to say that if I sold them (I won’t, it’s not my thing as I draft to get a custom fit), but if I did…I can tell you that the drafting of that pattern itself doesn’t take me all that long, far less time than I put into the sewing & finishing details…and I can easily reproduce it 1000 times once it’s digital. So it costs me nothing to sell 1000 more. As a seamstress, it costs me plenty to make 1000 more dresses. So I personally think it’s truly a wrongful imposition to place on small at home businesses to try to push them to credit the source, because if it were *me* in business then to sew for others, it makes places like Simplicity & McMalls seem far more appealing to give my business to as they ask nothing of the sort. Personally *I* would only respect that request if the seller also offered something in return, like *not* selling base patterns to any random person, but rather *only* offered those patterns to businesses. At least then i could know someone wasn’t using the “credit” as a way to end round me. I think it’s a tad ludicrous to think that the actual maker of an item should credit the pattern maker, the fabric maker & whoever else, because by the time you are done there, you may as well also credit your sewing machine, your thread & every other component that made that item possible.

    AND I say this as someone not in the business. I have made items to sell, but when I do I make one of a kinds & use all vintage items, etc. I don’t sell ANY patterns, ever. But if I did, I certainly wouldn’t anticipate anyone owe’s me any credit byond their credit card to buy it. I don’t even see it as a courtesy gesture, i see it as foolish business to help your customer skip you & either make it themselves or get gramma or someone else to do it or far cheaper. EVERY business discussed here is small business, often where *every* sale counts. I personally think it’s one of the weaknesses in etsy & similar marketplaces, the oddball etiquette people expect that has nothing to do with good business sense on the part of the buyer & certainly isn’t of the spirit of respecting that the seamstress is *also* just trying to keep some edge, whatever that is & sometimes it is *only* that they don’t know how to find that pattern & they LOVE what she made.

  9. Amanda says:

    What about something like the licensed Disney embroidery designs that Brother sells? Their terms say they aren’t selling you the design, only granting you a limited license, and then continue to say that you cannot sell items you make using them.

    Where I think it becomes murky, is you’d probably have a hard time convincing a judge that a t-shirt with a Disney Princess applique on it was utilitarian… (the applique bit at least)

    • Emily C says:

      What Brother is referring to is the fact that you are buying the fabric, not the rights to the design printed on the fabric. If that restriction on selling items is printed on the fabric, it is not legally binding. They would sell you the fabric, even if you did not agree. The agreement must be made prior to the sale.

  10. Pat Howell says:

    Is is ok to make multiple copies of a pattern for church use? We are using the same pattern but several seamstresses to make the costumes. Can we make a copy for this use?

  11. Sandy says:

    I think one should learn how to spell the word if writing about it. It’s “license” not “licence”.

  12. Charloette Greiner says:

    How can ebay seller sell from quilt mag. cut articiles from the mag and sell them…this really puzzles me…hope someone has a answer for me.

  13. Spot on! Although as a pattern designer myself (cross stitch, not sewing, but in the right area) I’d love for anyone selling their finished work to credit me (and so far I have had no problems with this!) I am fully aware that I cannot demand that any of my customers do so. On the other hand, I and any other pattern designer can demand that the pattern itself is not sold, published or shared by any other means.

  14. Alice says:

    Hello and thank you for this article !
    What about using pattrens you buy during sewing workshops ?
    Do you have to ask the designer for it ? It is a commercial use.
    Do you have to ask you clients to buy it themselves ?
    Is it the same for designer patterns and magazines ?
    New real questions… 🙂
    Thank you if you have a bit of answer.

  15. Debbie Cisar says:

    I’m curious about downloaded patterns or embroidery designs where the seller/designer requires the buyer to acknowledge that they agree to the terms and conditions prior to purchase (usually a checkbox on the page). Of course, this is where it says that the pattern/design is for personal use only, or that if you make more than xx number of items, a commercial license is required, or the one about crediting them as the source if you sell items. My question is whether that acknowledgement of the terms prior to purchase creates a contract. In the example above, I assume that a pattern is purchased without direct interaction with the seller/designer. But this situation does require an affirmative response from the buyer so has the buyer consented to and therefore bound by a contract? Thanks in advance for clarifying, this is very common with machine embroidery designs in particular.

    • Fran says:

      What I understand is I am buying their digital design and I will be the only one to use it. I will not share or sell the design as my own. What I make with their design is mine and I can sell that item if I so desire.

  16. I am SO glad you made this information available! I am really tired of the misinformation out there. Now, how do we get Etsy to cooperate? They are deactivating shop owner’s items because they are intimidated by these large companies. I have a bazillion items I’ve already made with “licensed” fabrics, and would love to be able to list them in my shop, which I know legally I should be able to sell, but that Etsy won’t allow it. For your readers, visit Tabberone.com. Karen Dudnikov has tons of info there, and states the same as you have – that these large companies are trying to intimidate everyone into thinking they are illegally making and selling items made from their fabrics! You would think they’d welcome it!

  17. kct3458 says:

    Excellent article. I especially like that you have included references to go back to, when questioning use of a pattern. I am curious, does this also apply to embroidery designs? I embroider quite a bit on items that I make and sell. I am also purchasing doll patterns to make dolls and the seller states on her page, that if you purchase a pattern, you cannot then share that pattern with a friend or family member and that they must purchase their own. They also state that all advertising of finished products must have a link back to their website where the patterns are sold. I look forward to more articles like this and hopefully, I will find the answers to these issues.

  18. Kathy Davey says:

    I am curious…did you reach out to the US Copyright Office (https://copyright.gov/) for advice on these issues?

  19. Karen Cowan says:

    Thank you for clarifying this Mayra ?

  20. Betty Turner says:

    Thank you so much for the informatuion. I have heard so many rumors over the years. My Grandmother was a seamstress, making beautiful wedding gowns and suits, etc. and she had not heard of any of these laws at the time, or didn’t care, because she had to make a living, a farmer’s wife. She loved sewing and making her own patters for her customers and put a lot of love into each and every article of clothing she made.

  21. Thank you for this article! I have run into an issue with a pattern designer complaining to Etsy about 2 quilts I made using her pattern. Etsy just notified me and deactivated the listings. Now I am leery as I fear that if there were any more complaints Etsy could close my shop. These were patterns I found in a magazine, so I bought the magazine not the actual patterns. Does that make a difference? I’ve tried to do some research on copyrighting of patterns and selling the finished product and it is all very confusing! So I’m working on designing my own.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Nancy, designing your own is always the best policy.

    • ldygrffn says:

      My understanding, after reading a bunch of different threads with similar questions, (and a bunch of different answers, some from Copyright Lawyers) is that making and selling something from someone else’s publically available pattern is fine. If they offered it for sale and you bought it, you have the right to make something from it. If they made it public in a way that meant that you didn’t have to buy it, you have the right to make something from it. The thing that you made is yours, you can legally do with it as you will.

      That said, Etsy has it’s own rules about creator rights and buying and selling. So…

    • Emily C says:

      Legally you have the right to sell anything you make from a pattern. It is yours to do with as you please. You are not trying to sell copies of the pattern and pretend it is your own. You are selling the skill and labor that went into making the quilt, not the pattern. The pattern maker already made her money when you bought the magazine. Convincing Etsy is another matter. It is likely the designer sent them a Cease and Desist letter and they don’t want a lawsuit, regardless of the actual law.

  22. Juliana Farrell says:

    Thank you for clarifying. I agree with all the information. I have been told otherwise but have looked some of it up and find that your explinations are right
    on

  23. Amy Hughes says:

    What about quilt patterns?

    • So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Amy, my sense is that the same rules apply. A pattern is a pattern, whether for a garment or a quilt. If someone has a differing view, please share.

  24. Laura Mae says:

    Thank you so very much for this information, finally a clear answer to some very murky questions. It seems totally ridiculous to me that these huge corporations who make millions think it harming them to have usual products made from their fabrics.

  25. Danielle says:

    I have a question regarding German patterns. if I purchase a German pattern and they have written in their copyright that the purchaser is not allowed to make a garment from the pattern and sell for profit, is that legally binding in the United States? basically, am I allowed to purchase a German pattern, make an outfit from the pattern, and resell it for profit in the United States even though they may state that whoever purchases the pattern needs to pay a licensing fee to them and or credit them for the pattern.

  26. B.J. says:

    This article is superb! I have been wondering for some time if I could sell what I sew, and obviously the legality of doing so with regards to disclaimers printed on pattern packaging. I’m not particularly interested in mass production of anything, but even a small business or craft show venue seems subject to corporate bullying. Granted, I’m not currently in a position to market my (developing) skills as a seamstress, but I was curious to know if I would have to go get a PhD in pattern drafting and fashion design to be able to eventually sell at my local community center craft fairs or take on clients in need of a pretty dress. An architect will draft blue prints for a building, then sell the blue prints to contractors, but the architect does not retain authority over sales of the completed buildings (unless the architect and contractor are one and the same, although after the initial building sale there is no involvement in future sales) and it is expected, without reservations or disclaimers, that the building will be for sale upon completion even if the contractor did not draft the blue prints. I would expect that same principle to apply to pattern sales. After all, there’s nothing new under the sun and drafting a garment pattern with no similarities to any other pattern would be practically impossible. It’s not the use of a pattern that defines a seamstress, but the way in which she applies her skills with fabric selections and quality construction techniques that will make or break her. Although, I’m curious to know why pattern drafters feel they have authority over how their patterns are used post-sale. If it’s a matter of “well, you’re making money off of my idea” what’s stopping them from doing to same? But they did make money, when I purchased the instructions to create their idea yet I’m expected to only spend on their product and not try to recoup some of my expense? If that’s their stance, I may as well not even sew; I only have so much closet space for hand made dresses. However, I suppose that’s a moot point considering the copyright infringement laws and the fact that I’ve barely moved past the “Beginner” stage of my sewing adventures 🙂

What do you think?