Fabric and Intellectual Property

I’ve been wondering about copyright laws as they apply to fabric. The question of interest to probably most of us: is it legal to use fabric to create something that you turn around and sell with your own label on it? Internet research yields some enlightenment. I know some designers (e.g. Munki Munki) specify that their fabric can be used for personal creations only, not for resale.

The Amy Butler website says:

“You can make items for sale on a small scale, for example, from your home for a craft bazar. If you are purchasing the fabrics at retail cost, you can use them to make a few items. You can not ‘produce’ items to sell in mass on a website or in a store, or for ‘wholesale’ – manufacturing items to sell to retail shops, catalogs, or websites.”

From those two sources alone, it seems like the answer is “it depends on the company.” I couldn’t find the question addressed on other company websites, such as Michael Miller, Alexander Henry, and Robert Kaufman. If you are selling items, it would probably be smart to contact the manufacturer to find out their policy. But then there is what the companies say vs. the law of the land, which appears to vary across the country. From this thread on the community.lawyers.com message board:

“The typical issue involving fabric is whether the use of copyright-protected fabric to make an article of clothing (or something else) constitutes the creation of an unauthorized derivative work. The law on this subject is not uniform throughout the country. In some circuits, simply making a ‘mechanical transformation’ isn’t sufficient. In other circuits, you would have to alter the copyright-protected fabric itself. In other circuits, a ‘mechanical transformation’ is sufficient.” (What does mechanical transformation mean in regard to fabric? Hmm.)

I would bet that if a company’s policy is more strict than local laws, it wins out — that, in buying Amy Butler fabric, you’re in essence agreeing to their user policy — but of course, I am not a lawyer.

And what about, say, scanning a fabric and using the pattern as the background image for your website, or printing it out on paper to use in projects? It’s almost certainly illegal to reproduce patterns/designs to make other materials for financial gain (though I can’t find that stated explicity anywhere), but what if it’s just for personal projects? If it’s for your own scrapbook or whatever, of course nobody’s going to know, but what about using it on your blog?

I also wonder about these issues in regard to vintage fabrics. I figure nobody’s going to come after you for doing anything you can imagine with any pre-1980-or-so fabric, but I’m still interested to know about how copyright/intellectual property law applies here.

Note: A version of this entry was originally posted on Dioramarama on October 23, 2005. See original entry for reader comments.

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