What on earth could I write on what is primarily a knitting blog about Ugly. On the whole I tend not to knit ugly things. I design things I want to wear or own myself, and I'm not going to design things I dislike from the start. Similarly, if I'm knitting someone else's pattern, I'm not going to choose something I don't like. Yarn is expensive, and my time is valuable to me, so if something doesn't appeal visually I'm not going to waste hours or cash on knitting it.
Then that got me around to thinking about knitting other people's patterns, and about a subject that comes up quite a lot on designer chat forums which could be described as the ugly side of pattern design. It's about copyright theft, people sharing (or worse, selling) patterns that they don't have the right to share. This post is probably going to be more serious than most, but it's something that makes me (and a lot of other designers) cross and it's hard to know what to do about it, short of putting some information out there and letting the reader make up their own mind on what to do to act in the legally and morally correct way.
Before I go any further, I'm not a lawyer, but I have read some reputable and reliable websites about this, to which I'll provide links as references as I go if you want to read more. Since I live in the UK I am subject to British law so those are the laws I've been reading about.
So, firstly, what is copyright? Basically it is the right of an author of a piece of original work (be that the written word, drawings, photography and other art, audio and/or visual recordings, broadcasts, and the actual page layouts of published works) to control who may or may not copy their original work. In the UK, there is no need to register a piece of work anywhere; copyright is automatically assigned to the author as soon as the work is created. Adding the © symbol is not necessary, although it does make it clear that you as the author understand that the work is yours and that you are making your copyright known.
Secondly, how does copyright apply to knitting patterns? While researching this subject, I was amazed to find that the UK Intellectual Property (IP) Office has a specific online guide to the copyright matters that apply to knitting patterns. The long and short of it is that UK law protects "literary works" as copyrighted documents, and that the written instructions in knitting patterns are "almost certainly" classed as literary works, with the charts, schematics and photographs also being protected as "artistic works". The author of a knitting pattern has the right to dictate whether and how their pattern may be distributed, and most countries have reciprocal agreements that allow copyright holders to enforce their own copyright laws in other countries.
A copyright holder has the right to protect their copyright, and this is where it starts to get messy (not to mention frustrating and potentially expensive) for those unfortunate authors whose copyright is infringed.
There is small-scale copyright infringement. For example, Betty buys a knitting pattern which she takes along to Knit Night where Shirley admires it. The following week, Betty brings along a photocopy of it and gives it to Shirley. Betty does not have the right to copy that pattern unless she is the copyright holder or has express permission from the copyright holder to do so. (The law permits a person to make a copy for personal use as long as that copy is not then passed on or sold, so if you want to photocopy one page out of a book that you own to save you having to take the entire book out with you, that's OK as long as the copy doesn't get distributed.) Betty is likely to "get away" with that because the copyright holder is unlikely to ever find out, but it isn't right. The correct course of action for Betty to take would either be to direct Shirley to where she can buy her own copy, or, if she's feeling generous, to buy a second copy of the pattern to give to Shirley as a gift. If you are Betty, or if you know her, please remind her of those two legal options.
On the other hand, there is large-scale copyright infringement, sometimes large enough to be potentially criminal, and as a small business or hobby designer this is the most frustrating to have to deal with as a very tiny minnow in the ocean of the internet. There are websites (and I'm certainly not going to direct you to those) set up to encourage people to share knitting patterns (and other craft patterns) that they don't have the right to share, in exchange for being able to download other patterns which the website doesn't have the right to be distributing. There are even shops on well-known auction sites openly selling photocopies of copyrighted patterns. Such websites are filled with patterns "shared" by "members", largely (I'd guess probably all) without the author's permission, and from the experience of other designers who have posted their experiences online, it is close to impossible to get patterns removed from them once they're on there. The only recourse designers seem to have is to contact the large internet search engines and get them to remove the links to the pattern pages so that people can't browse to find them.
One could argue that a person who chooses to download an illegal copy from a dodgy website was never going to pay for a legal copy of the pattern in the first place, but to my mind that is no argument. The more "sharing" of illegal IP goes on, the more it is normalised, and the more socially acceptable it becomes. The problem with that is that the more acceptable it becomes, the more it goes on, the fewer people choose to pay for patterns and the fewer designers can afford to keep designing.
If you like a designer's work (especially independent designers), support them by buying their patterns. If they get put out of business, it is the knitters who suffer too.
Here endeth the lecture.