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.

Stabilizer Basics

As a singing nun in Austria once advised, the best place to start is at the very beginning, so the first thing we’ll discuss is the basic categories of stabilizer. As with most things, the basics can quickly get a little complicated, as each basic category can split into subcategories that contain stabilizers with more specific uses. In order to make this as easy to understand as possible, think of it like building blocks. You learn the basic categories, which are your foundation, and then move on the the more specific options, often called specialty stabilizers or backings, which might have a less broad application or may even be applied only to one specific type of job.

At the most basic level, there are essentially two categories of stabilizer, cutaway and tearaway. As the names imply, tearaway stabilizer can be torn, while cutaway requires removal with scissors. Pretty much every type of stabilizer falls into one of these two categories. The exception to this rule would be water soluble, which requires water to be removed. Water solubles are a popular option for patches or free standing lace and also tend to be toppings. A topping is a stabilizer that is used to keep stitches from sinking into pile fabrics. It is a useful option for those embroidering towels or fleece.

For many embroiderers, tearaway seems like the optimal stabilizer solution, mostly because removal can often happen fairly quickly, since the excess stabilizer can easily be torn away. A quality tearaway, one that is well made, will tear quickly and cleanly. A tearaway stabilizer that is of lesser quality or less well made, won’t tear cleanly and often will leave fuzzy edges that can fray or make the embroidery look untidy. A quality tearaway will also stabilize effectively and hold stitches firmly, but only require a minimum amount of force to tear. A tearaway that requires yanking hard to remove excess stabilizer runs the risk of pulling stitches and distortion of the finished product.

Tearaway stabilizers generally come in three options: light weight (1.5 or 1.8 ounce), medium weight (2.0 or 2.5 ounce) and heavy weight (3.0 ounce). In some cases, the medium and heavy weight options may also be called “hat” or “cap” backing. The name comes from the fact that these weights will most often be used when embroidering a hat. The stabilizers known as cap backings are heavier weight, usually stiffer and more paper-like, which means they can stabilize heavy fabrics and tear sharply and quickly.

Cutaway stabilizers, as the name implies, will require a little more work to remove. All cutaway stabilizers will require cutting away the excess stabilizer as the method of removal. Some embroiderers prefer to cut close to the stitches while others will cut as far away as possible from the stitched design. A common trick is to cut the stabilizer to slightly larger than the design, which lessens the need for cutting after the embroidery is completed.

Cutaway stabilizer is a popular option for use with lighter or stretchy fabrics as it provides the fabric with increased stability. Embroidery on heavy weight fabrics like sweatshirt material, or jackets, can also work well with a cutaway stabilizer. While there are light weight cutaways available, a 2.5 ounce cutaway is considered by some to be the universal stabilizer option. A 3.0 cutaway may be the weight used when embroidering heavier fabrics, but 2.5 ounce cutaway is, for some, the only stabilizer they ever use.

The third category of stabilizer is the water soluble options, which are stabilizer, but aren’t generally designed to remain with the fabric for the long term. As the name implies, a water soluble stabilizer dissolves when water is applied to it. Only the parts that have been actually embroidered remain to do their job. Water soluble stabilizer can be a cutaway/washaway, which looks somewhat like a standard stabilizer but which dissolves in water, or it can look more like plastic. The versions that appear to be more like plastic will either be Vilene or Badgemaster, which are heavier water soluble stabilizers that are often used for badges and sometimes used for free standing lace. The other water soluble option, which has the appearance of a thin plastic, is a water soluble topping, which is used to keep stitches from sinking into towels or fleece. You may often here water soluble toppings referred to as Solvy, but that is an inaccurate description. Solvy is a trademarked name for water soluble toppings from Sulky, but has, over the years, become a more generic term, like Kleenex when used for tissue regardless of actual brand name.

Author’s note: This is the first chapter of a book about stabilizer that is in process currently. We hope to have it available for sale soon.