Under United States copyright law, public domain materials are those that are either not copyrightable, or have a copyright that has expired. Copyrightable materials include original literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works that are captured in a physical form, such as on paper or recorded on a CD.
When it comes to patterns, it is also important to know that copyright laws do not apply to ideas or methods of doing something. This does not mean that no element of a pattern can be copyrighted, however. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, original written descriptions and drawings accompanying a method may potentially be copyrighted, but the idea or method itself cannot.
While the courts have ruled that clothing for people and such clothes patterns are not copyrightable because they are utilitarian, or useful, items, they have indicated that certain fabric designs and decorations can be copyrighted. See Folio Impressions, Inc. v. Byer Cal., 937 F.2d 759 (2d Cir. 1991).
You cannot assume that your pattern is not copyrighted or is in the public domain. It is important to research the copyright history of each individual pattern.
- Skill level:
Research how old your pattern in question is and where it was published. This information is likely written somewhere on the pattern. Any work published in the United States before 1923 is no longer subject to copyright protection, automatically making it public domain material.
Conduct a search of the U.S. Copyright Office catalogues for any copyright registration of the pattern yourself, or ask the Copyright Office to do it for you. A fee applies for research conducted by the Copyright Office. You can access copyrights recorded since January 1, 1978, for free on the Copyright Office's website.
Contact a lawyer. If you are reproducing the actual pattern for any commercial purpose, there may be other legal issues, such as trademarks, involved. A lawyer can advise you of your legal rights and responsibilities.
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- "Circular 1"; Copyright Basics; U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress; Rev. August 2010
- U.S. Copyright Office: What Does Copyright Protect?
- Folio Impressions, Inc. v. Byer Cal., 937 F.2d 759 (2d Cir. 1991)
- "Circular 23"; The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office; U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress; Rev. May 2010