Vintage Sewing

Help! Dilemma!

April 13, 2010

In my career as a graphic designer, I have had to become aware of the basics of copyright law in order to educate my clients. You would not believe the number of clients who want to use photos they “found online,” without first securing reproduction rights! As copyright applies to fellow seamstresses, it means that we cannot sew a dress from a protected pattern, sell the dress, and then sew another for sale to a new customer. The laws are written as such that the rights to use the pattern belong to the customer, and while you can sew that same dress over and over for her, you cannot sew the dress again for someone else unless you buy the pattern again.

As some of you may know, I am not only an enthusiast of sewing from vintage patters, but I also sell some online. Most, if not all, of the patterns I have available are protected under (renewed) copyright claims. The pattern in question most certainly is. And here, finally, is my dilemma: I have a potential customer who is asking me to copy and sell to her just the instruction sheet from a pattern I have available for sale. The instructions are what the copyright holders care most about, and it would technically be illegal for me to make a copy of the instructions for her. HOWEVERRRRR… I also want to help a fellow enthusiast out of a jam. The pattern that she bought was missing the instruction sheet, so SOMEWHERE out there in the ether is “her” set of instructions.

I would love if you ladies (and gents) could weigh in on this situation, particularly if any of you have a background in ethics or a law degree! Many thanks in advance for your advice and opinions.

  1. What is the date of the pattern? Is the manufacturer still in business?

    I sell repo patters but am always leery of patterns dated 1947 and later, as they may have copyrights still applied to them.

    If its pre '47, then Id bank you are in a good place and give a copy to sell. If its post '47, and the manufacturer is still in business, contact them and see if the pattern is still under copyright.

  2. The pattern in question is late '50s, by a Major Pattern Company. I prefer to err on the side of caution and assume that they've renewed the copyrights part and parcel, rather than picking and choosing which to protect.

  3. You could loan the instruction sheet to her and supply her with a post-paid envelope, with which to return it. You wouldn't make anything off of that particular transaction but it could generate future sales.

  4. I wouldn't sell it to her, but I would give it to her. She owns the pattern, she can't just walk into a store and buy another, you aren't claiming to have written the instructions, you aren't making money off of giving her a copy of them. Its a simple question in my books…I'm all for copyright law, but they don't take into consideration a simple thing like instructions sheets going missing after 50 years.

  5. So she's asking if she can get a copy of the instructions for a personal pattern that she has no plans to sell or make future copies of? I don't see anything wrong with that (ethically or otherwise), and I would just send the copy for free (it being a transaction is I'm guessing where it gets fuzzy?).

  6. Just to be clear, the law says less about what profit I may or may not make from the transaction, but that I do not have rights to REPRODUCE the instructions in question. Whether I provide them for free or charge the customer for my expenses is not the issue. Example: it is just as illegal for me to burn a copy of a Patsy Cline CD and GIVE it to you as it would be for me to charge you a fee.

  7. Actually, I think the law does make a difference between profit and non profit.
    For example, it's allowed to make a copy of a CD you own and give the copy to a friend, but it's not ok to sell copies of CD's to your friends.
    Thus, if you consider her a friend (how do you define a friend?) and give her a copy of the instructions it should be legal. The laws are not there to stop friends sharing from one to another, but to stop illegal copies that harm the producers of the originals.

  8. Karin – Can you copy-and-paste or send a link to the section of law which states that I could make one copy for a "friend?" That would make this situation so much easier to handle, but I've never run across that paragraph. It wouldn't fall under the Fair Use section because it's neither an excerpt, being used for review or criticism, or for non-profit education purposes.

  9. I would ask the ladies at Pattern Rescue (.com) for assistance – they deal with this sort of thing all the time, may know the legalities better than any of us, and might be able to help out your correspondent as well.

  10. Laura – Not 20 minutes ago, I sent her to PatternRescue to see if they could help! That's an excellent suggestion (and resource).

  11. Help a fellow sewing chick in need. Copy it. Charge her for your time and trouble. Donate the funds to the old seamstress home to alleviate your guilt.
    Pay it forward.

  12. She's a friend at this point in a sewing jam. Copy it and donate your earnings to the charity of your choice. 🙂

  13. So if the person in question purchased the WHOLE pattern from you then there would be no ethical or legal issue, yet you feel that copying just the instructions would be illegal?? I have to say I see it as a no-brainer, just send her a copy! I work for an Intellectual Property department and I would have no trouble at all helping out a gal in need, plus would imagine that the actual pattern would be of more importance than the instruction sheet and be the main thing that copyright applied to…. but besides all this, who would know???!

    I will be asking around in work tomorrow to see what the legal position may be though, out of curiosity.

  14. I agree with Skitzo; 'give' her the instructions, charge for the materials. Then you aren't selling the instructions, technically, if you did have a suit brought against you.
    However, copyright law has changed to include ANY reproduction, for profit or not, as a violation, so either way, you are kind of stuck. (technically)

  15. Again, copyright law is concerned with the unauthorized REPRODUCTION of the protected materials. It is flat-out ILLEGAL for me to copy the instructions for this pattern, regardless of whether or not I charge for it. (A lawyer friend laughed when I mentioned the option of making a copy for a friend as Karin suggested, and offered that Karin should try telling that to the RIAA if they ever bring suit against her for making copies without the record labels' authorization.)

    Ladyday0_5 – The instructions are, to the pattern companies anyway, the most important part of the pattern. I'm sure you've noticed that many companies offer patterns of similar styles, and it's difficult for the companies to protect the cut itself. The pattern layout and instruction sheet is therefore the prize piece inside of that envelope. I appreciate you taking the time to ask around at work to get some professional opinions.

    Please understand that on a personal level I very much WANT to help out this gal, and I would be happy to make a copy and even pay for the stamp myself. But while I don't *expect* Large Corporate Pattern Company to find and sue me, they WOULD be within their rights to do so. It would ruin me financially on both a business and personal level, as my company is registered as a Sole Proprietorship. I guess I'm really trying to suss out how big of a risk I'd be taking. Has a pattern company every actually gone after an individual for copyright infringement the way the RIAA has over "polyphonic" theft?

  16. You could ask Major Pattern Company if it's OK. For one personal-use copy of the instructions to a pattern more than 50 years old, it would be petty to refuse permission.

  17. handbuiltwardrobe – My "customer" already asked, and was refused. I have sent a written query of my own and hope that it lands on the desk of a more reasonable employee.

    My fingers are crossed, and I'll keep you all posted!

    Many thanks to everyone for all of your help and suggestions.

  18. Copyright law is a murky swamp, and most pattern companies will tell you their old patterns are protected under copyright, even if they're not!

    I suggest she find a dress-making book from the same year as the pattern and use that for instructions. Most of the larger pattern companies put out pamphlet-type books in the 40's and 50's to help their customers make their patterns. They show up all the time on ebay.

  19. tiddleywink,

    I have just sent you a message. I hope you find some good information in there. Please do let us know how you make out with this situation.

  20. according to the SO (who teaches IP law), copying or distributing the instructions would be infringement. It *could* be considered fair use if done once to replace instructions for a legal copy, but according to him, fair use is inherently vague so you can never be 100% sure about it.

    assuming the pattern isn't super spendy, why doesn't she just buy the whole thing from you? then there are no copyright probs.

  21. Vogue Patterns is currently searching for vintage patterns to reproduce. By their own admission they have graphics of the patterns they have produced over the years, but they do NOT have actually patterns/instruction sheets. I suspect all of the Big Four are the same way.

    IF a major pattern company were going to sue you (and really, it's an instruction sheet, not cure for cancer), they would need to prove, among other things, that they have been damaged in some way by your activity. If they don't even have a copy of the pattern in question, they can't reproduce or sell the thing themselves, so I don't see the problem.

    And, the idea that the Big Four renewed copyright on thousand (possibly millions) of old patterns is laughable. They had no idea in the 50s that vintage patterns would be popular in 2010, and "popular" is a relative term here. People who sew are a small part of the population in this country, and a small percentage of sewers sew with vintage patterns. The cost of renewing the copyrights would be more than the profit to be made from the patterns.

  22. Nobody would care if you made one copy to replace a lost set of instructions for a 60-year-old pattern, regardless of the form letter they send when you ask. Caring about it is a bit pedantic, since it's certainly ethical, and it's not something that damages the copyright holders in any way (and therefore they would never marshal their resources to pursue a single photocopy.) Since it seems to be a big concern to you, sell your friend the pattern, then buy it back from her when she's done. Entirely legal. She can either choose to photocopy the instructions or just use them for reference, and either way you're completely in the clear.

  23. UPDATE: There was no form letter forthcoming from the pattern company in question, but rather two different personally-written replies from them, both strongly in the negative. Hopefully, the woman who asked me can find her missing instructions at PatternRescue.

    Thanks, everyone, for all of your help!

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