Sewing pattern copyright law – myths debunked

sewing pattern copyright law

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.

sewing pattern copyright lawphoto 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.

sewing pattern copyright law

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.

sewing pattern copyright lawphoto 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.

sewing pattern copyright law

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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306 Responses to Sewing pattern copyright law – myths debunked

  1. Harriet D Cornett says:

    I have seen these copyright fabrics and patterns and always wonder why would anyone try to copyright a raw material. Raw materials are materials used to make a finished product. This is like trying to place a copyright on flour. Who would buy flour to make another finished product to sell if they had to pay royalties? People who place, or attempt to place, a copyright on fabric or patterns are simply destroying their own sales and therefore their income. People will not buy their copyright product because they cannot use it for any of their own purposes.

  2. Katie says:

    Re: attribution

    Why does it matter where you live? Surely the most important factor is where the designer lives? If the designer lives in a place that requires attribution, then that design was created under those laws with the expectation that attribution would be necessary, and therefore, wherever the user/purchaser comes from, those rules should still apply, right?

    In a lot of cases, the ‘Terms of Sale’ or similar, that hardly anyone actually reads, often say something like “all disputes regarding this product will be governed by the laws of England and Wales”, in which case, if you tick that you did read it, then it is legally binding that you need to conform to those laws, including copyright laws.

    But I would have expected that that’s the implied practice anyway, regardless of whether or not it’s explicitly stated, right?

  3. Cheryl says:

    Thank you for this informative post.

    Years ago I downloaded a free sewing pattern for a bag and noted that permission was refused for resale of the completed.item. Not a problem for me as I was just going to make myself one and one for a gift for my mother. What I wasn’t expecting was for my mother to be hounded by by a “gentleman” at a craft show who angrily demanded to know where she got the bag from, who sold it to her etc. He wouldn’t accept her answer that it was made by her daughter as a gift. In the end she has to scream at him to stop harassing her or she would be calling the police. There was nothing mentioned about not being allowed to gift the finished item or for that matter not being allowed to use it in public.

  4. Susanne says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Even though I always understood copyright to only protect the original article..not more, no less. If you bought a book, you could buy as many as you like and re-sell them anyway you wanted, but only “as is”. You can not take any part of that book however, in any way, and sell it or use it without permission and credit. Same with patterns I presume, it would be very disrespectful to take someone else’s work and push it as your own. Same with fabric design…you can not use that design and use it as your own in any way that makes money/profits. But it makes sense, that any creation from either the pattern and/or fabric is yours..you did not duplicate the pattern or design. You made ….. (fill in whatever you made). So if you bought a book, or many,and opened a business reading to people from these books, copyright would not be an issue at all. Hope that helps.

  5. Stacey says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I have been quite nervous about selling my sewn products on Etsy and in person which are based off of patterns I’ve purchased over the internet. I feel alot more at ease now thanks again.

  6. Bethany says:

    Thanks for the information! I have two questions. 1 Are you allowed to resize a pattern? For instance copy it and shrink or enlarge it. 2. I have used a baby shoe pattern where someone deconstructed a commercial shoe and make a pattern from it. Is that legal?

  7. Bethany says:

    I have used a baby shoe pattern I found online where they took a pair of commercially made shoes and broke them apart and figured out how to make the shoes. Is it legal to make patterns from deconstructing commercially made items?

  8. Alex says:

    I wonder what are the legalities of using embroidery imagine of logos or characters. I highly doubt these were “licensed” by the original digitizer and might be trademarked. Thoughts?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      You need to purchase the license, companies that own a logo will sue you for copyright infringement.

  9. Bill says:

    Hi, thanks for this article!
    Would you just clarify one thing for me please? I wish to start a company that designs and sells leggings but am in the early stages of playing around with designs etc ie/making them myself from either A-tracing from a pair of leggings I already have then altering the gusset aspect and waistband aspect and B- using a pattern I purchased online from Jalie whom I think are in Canada/US…. but also making alternations on this pattern to create the perfect gusset.

    Their website states:

    SELLING GARMENTS MADE WITH JALIE PATTERNS

    You can sell finished garments on a limited basis (if you make them yourself it’s ok. If you have to contract the sewing off or have a manufacture, then it’s not ok). We are always happy to make it possible for entrepreneurs to start home businesses using our patterns. What we ask is only a reference, an acknowledgement on your website or product listing (example: design by Jalie, based on a Jalie pattern).

    So what happens if I alter the pattern then have it manufactured and start to sell- surely the manaufacter will draw up a new pattern making it my own intellectual property or is this not the case?

    It’s all a bit of a dream idea at the minute but I need to start of on the right foot so any advice greatly appreciated!

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      It is unethical to do what you are suggesting, so many tried and fail at copying what others do or ride on the back of someone’s effort.
      I suggest you read the book fashion Incubator by Katheleen Fasanella it will shed some light on what it really takes to survive and succeed in the business of fashion.

  10. Karen says:

    Thanks so much for this article!
    I’ve been sewing professionally for nearly 40 years, and recently had an Etsy shop. After hearing all these myths, I was so afraid I’d get in trouble making things to sell there! Also, I have seen a multitude of illegal PDF patterns there, and did not want to “Go There”.
    So, I have 2 questions:
    1) I bought a ’70s knitted doll pattern. After re-writing the pattern for circular needles and style, can I sell the new pattern?
    2) I make large size letter templates blown up many times from standard fonts. ( example, a 1/2″ letter expanded 400%, then 150%, then 125%) Then, the “rastorized” print-outs are corrected by hand, and I cut a new template.
    Can I scan and sell PDF files of these ready-to-print letters for craft applications? Or am I violating some laws pertaining to the original designer of said font? Like ARIEL BLACK, etc?

  11. Jana Queen says:

    I purchased an apron pattern on Etsy intending to make and sell. I read through the item details and shop policies and found nothing that stated that I could not sell what I make. Upon received the pattern it does state that I cannot use the pattern to make and sell and I need contact them regarding their limited license agreement. Is this legal? I would not have spent the money on the pattern if this had been disclosed.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      HI Jana, it is legal and you better get in touch with them. Perhaps it means you can not sell the pattern. Best to clarify that, if not there are so many free patterns out there.

      • Hannah says:

        According to the article above, it is not legal. You both have to agree to those conditions before the sell for ir to be kwfal.

      • Margaret Gotcher says:

        I’m confused. I thought the article said it’s only legal if you agree to it *before* purchasing?

      • Martith K DuRel says:

        You are incorrect. While it might be nice to get in touch with the maker of the pattern as per requested, it is not necessary legal to hide ‘requirements’ prior to making the purchase. (It is a deceptive practice in any country.)

        Jana Queen, as has been mentioned. If the pattern contains ‘extra’ requirements that were not visible at the time of purchase, you cannot be held to them. They are non-binding in terms of a contract.

        A lot of pattern authors strive to control every aspect of their pattern. There are a few US sellers who limit creation of products made by their pattern to X a year. Which, again, is illegal.

        As I tend to tell people, “Once you buy the product, they cannot tell you what to do with it. You can burn it, sell it, bury it in the backyard.” The only thing you are not allowed to do with the pattern is sell or give away copies of the pattern. However the actual product… well the pattern creator has no rights on the product YOU labored to make.

  12. Jeanniecat says:

    I have created a starwars LEGO quilt. I would like to give the pattern away on my website. Would I be able to do that?

    • Katie says:

      Lego is old enough to be out of copyright, so no issue there — at least as it pertains to the basic bricks. I don’t think Star Wars is old enough. When I undertook a class on the basics of this (UK), the key word is “severable”. Can something be ‘severed’ from the original whilst remaining intact? A character is a perfect example of this: a character can be ‘severed’ from it’s original media (in this case a film) and remain together as a whole for the purpose of making merchandise, so therefore it is still subject to the same copyright as the film itself.

      I don’t know if there has been a Lego Star Wars film. If there has, anything “severable” from that (including, I would say, any iconic scenes and not just any characters), is also protected.

  13. Kathy Obarowski says:

    If I buy and download a pattern in pdf and decide I don’t like it, can I give it away?

    • Kathy says:

      I have sold a PDF to get my money in return for a pattern I purchased but then didn’t like, but I would not sell copies of it, I know that selling copies is illegal. But to recoup my money, I HAVE resold to a close friend…never online however. I’ve sold to friends twice, but wonder now if that was illegal. But seems harmless to the seller, she got her sale, I’m just transferring it to a friend. Maybe that’s wrong though, idk.

  14. Malinda says:

    I do embroidery so if I buy an embroidery file that has let’s say a Mickey Mouse can I embroidery it onto fabric or a bag and sell it?

    • So Sew Easy says:

      I would say probably not. The image of Mickey Mouse is trademarked. No matter how you reproduce it, either by hand or mechanically, it is still their mark which would preclude you from selling the items.

      • Katie says:

        Disney have fought hard and lost, but the original Mickey Mouse has been around for so long now that the copyright has expired. But, Mickey has also gone through several different iterations over the years, and it is only the oldest one that is now in the public domain. For other character designs, check the age on them and the extent to which copyright law protects them in the country in which they were created.

  15. Dora G Vasquez says:

    If I buy a quilting pattern and templates, can I sell them after I am done making a quilt?

  16. Gina says:

    Thank you for the information. Can I use a pattern I purchase to teach a sewing class? I understand I can’t provide copies of the pattern to my students, but can I make copies of the written instructions for the kids to follow along with while in class (pictures are very helpful when teaching kids that have never sewn before)? I asked one pattern maker and she said each student had to have their own copy if I used it to teach.

    • So Sew Easy says:

      There may be some people who would quibble with this, but I think that’s OK as long as you don’t make copies.

    • I think it is helpful when teaching if instead of simply copying directions you clarify them. Pattern instructions today are too brief for beginners! Then you would be using your own words anyway.

  17. Chrissy Rufner says:

    Hi. I am not sure if you have time to answer my question but before I start my project I was wondering If you could kindly answer mt below question because I am so confused about it and I want to make sure I don’t do anything I am not allowed to.
    I want to make an item from old shirts/scrubs it would not be a shirt or clothing item. Can I do that and sell it? Since I did not make the shirts or patterns on the shirts but just want to cut them up and use them to make items that are not a clothing item.

    • Peggy says:

      Yes you can because whatever you are making originated in your thoughts/mind. Therefore, it is an original design using previously used material. Doesn’t matter where the material came from. I am replying using the same info stated above in the article.

What do you think?