If you buy or download an embroidery design and then share a copy with another embroidery friend, there’s a good chance you’re committing copyright infringement.
To help you stay on the right side of the law, I’m going to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about copyright laws related to buying, copying, and selling embroidery designs online.
For context, the answers below pertain to U.S. laws and they do not constitute legal advice (see disclaimer below).
Use the table of contents to jump to the section you need the most.
- Are embroidery designs protected by copyright?
- Can you copyright an embroidery stitch?
- Are free embroidery designs protected by copyright?
- Are embroidery kits protected by copyright?
- Is the content on an embroidery disk protected by copyright?
- How long does copyright last for embroidery designs and embroidery patterns?
- Can I copy or resell an embroidery design or embroidery pattern I purchased online?
- Should I register my embroidery designs with the U.S. Copyright Office?
- What should I do if I believe my copyright was infringed?
- Does embroidery design copyright protection apply in other countries?
Are embroidery designs protected by copyright?
Yes. Embroidery designs are considered “original works of authorship” and they are protected by copyright under the Copyright Act of 1976.
Thanks to this act, copyright protection automatically exists from the moment a work is created in the United States. And because “embroidery designs” and “embroidery patterns” are works of art, they fall under this protection.
This means that if you make and sell embroidery designs, you don’t need to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office for it to be protected by copyright laws. Your designs are copyrighted the second you create them, whether they’re published or not.
Can you copyright an embroidery stitch?
No, you cannot copyright an embroidery stitch. Making an embroidery stitch is “a process” and copyright laws do not protect processes.
If you make and sell embroidery patterns, designs, and kits, it’s important to understand that copyright laws do not protect ideas, procedures, methods, processes, or concepts, or “familiar symbols or designs” (amongst many other things).
This means that any images you take of a stitch, anything you write about a stitch, any video you create of a stitch—all of that is your original work, and it can be copyrighted.
But because the process of making embroidery stitch is considered a process, it cannot cannot be copyrighted.
Technically you could probably patent an embroidery stitch to legally claim ownership of the stitch. But do you really want to go to all that trouble?
If nobody had the right to use your embroidery stitch, you’d be limiting the amount of people who could use it. And do you really have the time (and money for the legal fees) to pursue every individual who uses your stitch to create a design?
Are free embroidery designs protected by copyright?
Yes, free embroidery designs that you download from the internet are protected by copyright. How you are permitted to use a free embroidery design depends on the specific copyright stipulations set by the design’s creator.
As the user of a free embroidery design, you have permission to to download and use that design in a very specific way. But you do not own the copyright of that design, and the design itself remains copyrighted under the Copyright Act.
Some sites offer free embroidery designs under a Creative Commons license, which let you use and share the design if you link back to the original source.
Other sites offer free embroidery designs and patterns for personal use only, which means you’ll be violating copyright laws if you redistribute the design or use it in a commercial manner.
To truly understand the copyright stipulations of an embroidery pattern or design, you’ll need to read the copyright statement on the website (or reach out to the copyright owner for clarification).
You cannot defend yourself from any copyright infringements by claiming ignorance of the law.
Are embroidery kits protected by copyright?
Some of the things in an embroidery kit are protected by copyright while others are not.
Remember how we said copyright laws protect “original works” but not things like “processes and concepts”? Well, this distinction comes into play with embroidery kit copyright, because some of the things in a kit are “original works” while others are concepts and processes.
For example, “original works” in an embroidery kit that would likely be protected by copyright might include instructional materials (e.g. PDF instructions, PDF designs), photos, diagrams, and video content.
Things that would not be copyrighted in an embroidery kit could include concepts or processes (e.g. a certain type of stitch that’s required to complete the design).
Is the content on an embroidery disk protected by copyright?
Typically, content on an embroidery disk is copyrighted. You, as the purchaser, have the rights to use it in a very specific way.
For example, let’s say you buy a disk of embroidery designs for your embroidery machine. In this case, you own the disk, and the designs have been licensed for you to use for personal projects.
Because these designs are still copyrighted, and the copyright owner owns the content on that disk, you cannot share these designs with someone else. By doing so, you are illegally distributing a pirated copy of these designs.
You cannot defend yourself from any copyright infringements by claiming ignorance of the law.
How long does copyright last for embroidery designs and embroidery patterns?
In the U.S., copyright protection generally exists from the moment of creation and lasts until 70 years after the death of the creator (with exception). Once that period expires, the work may enter the public domain.
Can I copy or resell an embroidery design or embroidery pattern I purchased online?
Legally, no, you cannot copy or resell a design you purchased online without explicit permission from the copyright owner.
Let’s say you buy an embroidery design from a creator on Etsy, Shopify, or another embroidery design website.
In most cases, this type of purchase gives you the right to use that design for your own non-commercial purposes. It does not give you the right to copy the design, resell the design, or use the design in a commercial context (e.g. make it your business logo, put it in advertising, etc).
You will need to read the copyright statement on the seller’s website (or reach out to the seller for clarification) to truly understand the copyright stipulations of these designs.
Should I register my embroidery designs with the U.S. Copyright Office?
Technically you can register your designs with the copyright office, and there are several benefits for doing so. But in my opinion, it seems like an unnecessary step.
Because copyright protection is automatic, going through the trouble of registering each design with the U.S. Copyright Office would be a lot of added hassle.
According to the U.S. Copyright Office’s website, there are some added benefits to registering your works for copyright, and registration is recommended “for a number of reasons.
“Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.” (source)
What should I do if I believe my copyright was infringed?
If you sell embroidery patterns, kits, and designs, and you believe that your copyright has been infringed or your content was stolen by another seller or creator, you may need to file a notice of intellectual property infringement, a notice of trademark infringement, or a DMCA notice.
Etsy and Shopify have built-in tools to help you protect your trademarks and intellectual property:
- Etsy — File a Notice of Intellectual Property Infringement
- Shopify — Trademark Infringement Notice
- Shopify — DMCA Notice and Takedown Procedure
Shopify also has a great guide on what to do when other other brands steal your designs, which covers the story of indie creator Tuesday Bassen taking on retail giant Zara (and winning!).
If you’re selling on your own website, you will likely need to consult a lawyer to help you out with the takedown or infringement request.
Does embroidery design copyright protection apply in other countries?
It’s very possible. According to the U.S. copyright office, the United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world. As a result of these agreements, countries honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights.
Keep in mind, the United States doesn’t have copyright relationships with every country. So if you need to send an infringement of copyright notice to someone in a foreign country, you can check that country’s copyright agreement with the United States in Circular 38a of International Copyright Relations of the United States.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this post constitutes information and not legal advice. What I’m sharing is based on my personal understanding and experience. Consult an attorney for professional legal advice copyright matters.