Intellectual Property for Crafters – A Case Study

If you’ve been craft blogging for any length of time at all, you’ve probably seen something you made end up somewhere else. Some people are good-natured but haven’t thought through the consequences of what they’re doing, sometimes it’s something totally innocent, and sometimes it’s outright theft. From a legal point of view, there are three different categories that explain this phenomenon. Simultaneous Invention, Derivative Work, and Plagiarism. In one week back in 2009, I had all three happen to me. It’s been long enough that I think it’s safe to talk about it now.

Simultaneous Invention

Terrarium Ornament
My theme tree in 2009 was the Woodland Christmas tree, so I had a new woodland flavored craft coming out every day during the month of December. Like always, I try and vary the medium I use, create new designs, and allow myself to be inspired by popular trends. Terrariums had been all over the internet over the last year, and when Michael’s carried these jumbo sized glass ornaments, it was a simple leap to make a terrarium ornament. And I was not the only one. Amy at Design Sponge and I posted this idea within a day of each other. A few days after that Heather at Dollar Store Crafts posted her version. It was an idea whose time had come. None of us had any reason to be angry with anybody else, and of course none of us were.

Derivative Work
Brown Bird's Nest
Earlier that year as I had been seeking out design inspiration for this woodland tree, I had come across a Little Wire Bird Nest from Cathe of Just Something I Made. She used pearls and wire to make these tiny intricate little charms she used to decorate other projects, and I thought I could do something similar that would suit my purposes. I was definitely inspired by Cathe, and of course gave her the credit she deserved, but I made enough of my own changes that it became something new. It wasn’t wholly original, but it was something different. That’s derivative work.

Snowflake Ornament on tree
This happens a whole lot to craft bloggers. A whole lot. Often by other craft bloggers who think it’s OK to reproduce a tutorial completely as long as they use their own photos. It’s not. If you are not contributing something new to the process, and not giving credit where it’s due, it’s stealing.

When another blogger does it, I tend to forget about it. It’s usually not worth the confrontation unless someone is a really big blog and making a lot of money off your content. But that’s not usually the way it works. Except this one time.

During this same week I got an email from a reader in Australia, pointing me to the magazine HomeLife, which was featuring my snowflake tutorial, credited to someone named Francesca Newby. [Update: Apparently you all have made enough of a fuss for me that they’ve taken this down. But since nothing on the internet is ever gone for good, you can see how it used to look here.] This was the most clear-cut case of plagiarism I had ever seen, especially given that every precise measurement was exactly the same. To be legally safe all they would have had to do was add a new piece, or leave off a piece, or make something a fraction of an inch larger or smaller, but they didn’t. It is exactly my snowflake.

I called a lawyer friend, I sent emails, and I was ignored. Basically, since it’s international it would have taken a whole lot more money to go after them than I would have made on it. So I’m out of luck. That snowflake has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, so at least it got it’s proper moment in the sun with my name next to it, but it is absolutely galling to know that someone else got paid for my work. I hear HomeLife is a major magazine in Australia. They absolutely should have known better, and they at least could have responded to my emails with an apology. But all this time later, nothing.

I kept quiet about it for so long because I was debating legal action, and I didn’t want things to get complicated with other media outlets, and it seemed so much more prudent to stay quiet. But now I feel like it’s worth talking about as instruction. This does happen, and since we’re the little guys, there’s not much we can do about it. When you stand up for yourself and you still find yourself beaten, the only solace a crafter can take is that there are always more ideas where that one came from. We need to take heart that we’re more than one good idea, and just keep sharing beautiful things with the world.