Monday, March 8, 2010

Licensing, Copyrights and Crafting

I normally don't post about these types of issues but I felt there are a lot of crafters out there who aren't aware how easy it is to cross a line in regards to copyright laws or how a licensed character can and can't be used.

(Side Note: I'm also anxious for spring- we've had gorgeous weather this past weekend so I thought it'd pepper this post with some pictures I took last year).

Legal disclaimer- I'm not a lawyer, this information is from my personal and professional experience working with licensed materials. If you need specific advice about whether or not you might be breaking copyright laws you should contact a lawyer that specializes in intellectual property, copyright and trademark laws. This post should not be used a legal council.

OK now that the legal mumbo jumbo is out of the way let's start at the beginning:

What is licensing and what does it mean if something is a licensed character?

Licensing is when someone gives permission for another entity to use their intellectual property (usually a character, image or brand) on a product (anything from a t-shirt to a game). Giving that permission is literally a license to use their property in a mutually agreed upon way. For example when you see a cartoon character or a sports logo on a shirt that's a licensed shirt. Virtually all the merchandise you see in stores featuring TV characters, music groups, storybook characters and sports teams are licensed products.

When someone uses it without permission it's unlicensed merchandise and that's against the law.

Now, why does this matter to crafters?

Because I see a lot of crafters using other peoples intellectual property in ways that break copyright and trademark laws.

If you are using a character, logo, name or image that someone else created on a craft you've made you cannot legally sell those crafts unless you obtain permission from the owner of that property. Not in your Etsy store, not at a craft fair or any where else for that matter. If you do you are breaking laws and infringing on the copyright of that property.

Does this mean I can't create a handmade shirt for my daughter with her favorite cartoon character on it?

No, you can make your daughter all the shirts she wants because that's for personal use. What you can't do turn those shirts into your new business and outfit all the kids in your daughters class with handmade shirts featuring their favorite cartoon characters.

Personal use is different from commercial use.

So why are these laws in place?

They protect the creator/owner who has the right to say how and where their property is used.

I see crafty items for sale in online store that use other peoples characters and brands all the time and I really think most people don't realize they are doing anything wrong. I've also seen people get really upset when their item listings are pulled because of copyright infringement.

I understand it took time and money to make those items but at the end of the day if you're selling items without permission it's stealing from the person who created that character or brand.

This may not be a popular stance to take, some crafters feel it's a David and Goliath thing- crafters are small and most of the people or companies that own these brands are big "so why should they care".

Which brings me to something I hear all the time-

Why are they bothering to come after small crafters who aren't getting rich off these crafts?

Well there are many answers to that. Sometimes crafters really do make a difference. Sure one crafter isn't getting rich off of their handmade items. But it's not often that there's just one person making a particular craft (especially if it's a popular character). All of those unlicensed items can really add up.

Also there's a legal reason to fight the little guy. Protecting your copyright is actually a legal obligation of the copyright holder. If the owner of that intellectual property doesn't actively control the use of said property they put their legal rights to say how it's used at risk.

But at the end of the day I always try to think of this whole issue in terms that are a little more human- I'd be upset if I created something and it was copied and sold by someone else without my permission.

No matter the size of the company or character I think that basic "if it were me" rule should be applied.

So what should you do if you want to make something using someone else's intellectual property.

Ask permission! Contact the person/company that owns what you'd like to use, the worst that can happen is they say No. But that's a heck of a lot better than losing time, money and possible having a legal team sending you letters.

I hope this helps!


  1. Great post, Meg! That's important stuff! I *still* need to put some legal verbage on my site one of these days... sigh...

  2. Several years ago a lady was making/selling cakes of various cartoon characters. She thought because she bought the cake pan it was ok to make and sell her cakes. She found out the hard way she shouldn't have been doing that.

  3. Thanks Joanne! Yes get that legal up on your site. There is an inherent copyright for anything you create but the more you actively copyright the stronger the protection.

    Oklahoma Granny- you touched on another really interesting aspect of licensing and crafting. I'm really glad you brought it up!

    Character cake pans and other similar products like licensed fabrics are a little more confusing to crafters. Lots of people think if they've bought these types of products they can sell the crafts or cakes they've made from them. But in reality what you've bought is a license for personal use only.

  4. Way stand up for what you believe in that's you right,& thank's for explaining it.Thank's Cookie17


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