Copyright and Digitized Designs

If you’ve been in the world of machine embroidery for any length of time, you’ve probably heard at least one story about a company who was using and selling items with designs which they didn’t have the rights to use, and who was caught. Maybe it’s the story of the day care that had a mural painted using Disney characters and was sued. Maybe it’s the screen print shop using an NFL team’s logo who had their merchandise seized. Copyright is a huge issue, and violating a copyright can have big, and expensive consequences. Even if you think your business is small, and using a design you don’t have the right to use won’t be noticed, or even if you believe one of the myths about copyright that are floating around the industry, the hard fact is that using a design to which you don’t have the rights can mean fines, jail time and even the loss of your business. To make sure you stay on the right side of the copyright issue, you need to know the facts.

The first fact to know is that sharing designs is illegal. Even if you legally bought the design and the rights to use it, posting it in a group for others to download, or sharing it with friends so they can use it is breaking copyright and against the law. So all those Facebook groups or design sharing sites you might find online are essentially full of criminals. The bottom line is this: if you didn’t pay for the design and purchase the rights to use it, then you have no right to use it, and you’re breaking the law if you do. You’re also stealing income from the person who made the design. So just don’t do it.

Let’s talk for a moment about what is meant when we talk about “rights”. When you legally purchase a design from a designer, they grant you certain rights in regard to how the design can be used, whether it can be used on items which you sell and other provisions regarding the design. LynniePinnie’s terms of use are pretty standard detailing what you may and may not do with the designs you purchase, and even with the associated images. Staying within these guidelines means you’re using the designs as intended. Straying outside them means you’re breaking the law.

You should also be aware that a lot of the myths about copyright that are heard often around the industry are not true. There is no percentage rule that allows you to change a copyrighted design by that percentage to avoid violating copyright. There is also no avoiding copyright issues if you are creating something for your own use and not for sale. Most design licenses will specify how the design can be used, some may authorize use on items which will be sold, other designs may specify for personal use only and not for sale items. Basically, the safest thing to do is to legally buy the design and follow the terms of use as specified by the design creator.

Finally, if you’re wondering if you can also if you can trademark the position and arrangement of the designs you purchase on a piece of clothing, the short answer is yes. In Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands the Supreme Court ruled that two dimensional designs on the surface of clothing are protectable by copyright. This includes combinations, positioning and arrangements of shapes, colors and lines.

Obviously, this is a very basic overview or copyright law and what it entails. If you would like more information on this issue, this article by Gordon Firemark, a lawyer in Los Angeles who deals extensively with this issue, is a good place to start. As a general rule, however, the easiest way to avoid infringing on a copyright is to legally purchase all the designs you use and to be aware of the terms of use for those designs.

Where to Sell Your Work

For some people who do embroidery, one of the prime venues for selling what they make can be craft fairs or trade shows. Such events can be a great option for sales, but they also take a lot of work. There may be a booth or a table to set up. All the stock needs to be transported. Depending on the set-up, you might be on your feet for hours and hours. And then, when the event is over, all the merchandise that didn’t sell has to be repacked, the set-up has to pulled down and loaded up, and it all has to go back to your workspace, to be unpacked, sorted and stored. That can be a lot of work, and it’s not necessarily work that everyone wants to do or can do. If that’s your situation, here are some ideas for places you can sell that might suit you better.

Etsy – Most people who embroider and familiar with Etsy. If, by some chance you aren’t, Etsy is a marketplace that specializes in vintage and handmade items. It’s a place where a lot of designers, artisans and creators sell. For some, it can be a very fertile platform for sales. Just be aware that Etsy does have fees and rules and that it may not suit everyone. Still, it does have the advantage of a dedicated customer base, and a platform that is known and trusted. Just do your research before deciding if this platform is right for you. Make sure you fully understand all the fees and requirements.

Facebook/Instagram Shops – If you are on social media, specifically Facebook or Instagram, having a shop on your profile or page might be a good option for you. This option is designed to take advantage of traffic you already have on your pages and profiles and allow your customers to buy right on Facebook or Instagram. Keep in mind to utilize this option you will have to add all your products to your desired platform which could be a time consuming process. Your business will also need to be eligible to set up a shop.

Create Your Own Site – There are a variety of software packages and sites that can help you create your own online store. Shopify, WooCommerce, and Ecwid to name just a few. The advantage to having your own site is that it’s all under your control. The disadvantage is that it’s all under your control. You have to figure out how to set up payment options. You have to add necessary information and products. You have to figure out where and how to host the site. There is more control over having a site that is yours that you host, but there are also more issues that need to be handled. If you’re not tech savvy or interested in having to deal with the details of setting up a site, this most likely will not be the option for you.

Amazon Handmade – Created as an alternative to Etsy, Amazon Handmade isn’t as well known, but it could be an option for your business. Amazon Handmade is for artisans and has an application process to sell on their platform. They require you have a professional selling account which comes with a fee, and they take 15% of every sale you make. If that doesn’t sound like a great deal, it might not be, except for the fact that selling on this platform does give you access to Amazon’s audience and marketing budget. Read all the fine print, but this might be a good option for some businesses.

Have a Brick and Mortar – Another option for selling product might be to set up a storefront or to work out of your home. The advantage of a storefront is that you might be able to connect and network with other merchants in your town and you will be in a set place to which people can bring the work they want done. A disadvantage is that stores need to be set up and maintained, you will either need to rent or buy space and you need to be there during set hours. Some business owners get around this by working from their homes, but that may entail letting people into your home and sometimes makes work far too easy to access. There are trade offs with either option.

The thing to remember about selling is there’s always a way to do it if you look hard enough. The Internet has made it easier to reach more people than ever before, so it’s just a matter of doing your research, finding the option you think will work best for you and getting started.