Can I Make Items Using Copyrighted Fabric?

By Marilyn Lindblad

Sewing and crafting enthusiasts who purchase fabric by the yard are no doubt familiar with copyright markings. Fabric manufacturers imprint many textiles with the copyright symbol on the selvage edge of the fabric along with the manufacturer's name to put the world on notice that their designs are protected by U.S. copyright law. These symbols can be confusing when someone wants to make -- and perhaps sell -- items using copyrighted fabric.

Sewing and crafting enthusiasts who purchase fabric by the yard are no doubt familiar with copyright markings. Fabric manufacturers imprint many textiles with the copyright symbol on the selvage edge of the fabric along with the manufacturer's name to put the world on notice that their designs are protected by U.S. copyright law. These symbols can be confusing when someone wants to make -- and perhaps sell -- items using copyrighted fabric.

Copyright Law

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright law protects original creations that are fixed in a tangible medium that is capable of being reproduced. Copyright law applies to print fabrics because the print design is an original creation, and fabric is a medium that someone can reproduce. With digital scanning and fabric printing technology, someone could copy the protected design onto blank fabric. Copyright law prohibits this type of reproduction.

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Personal Items

Using copyrighted fabric to make clothing, household goods and craft items for your personal use is clearly permissible under copyright law. Some manufacturers even print the phrase "for non-commercial home use only" on the selvage of their copyrighted fabrics, giving their implicit approval for you to use these fabrics for home sewing projects. You can make apparel, window treatments, lamp shades and other items from these textiles.

Items for Sale

In most circumstances, you can legally sell items that you make from copyrighted fabric. On several occasions, copyright holders have filed lawsuits related to buyers' use of products with restrictive labeling, similar to the marks that fabric makers print on the selvage of textiles. For example, when makers of haircare products labeled "for professional use only," sued retail distributors that sold the products to nonprofessionals, judges dismissed the lawsuits. The distributors who bought the haircare products had not signed a written agreement that they would comply with the manufacturers' restrictions, and the courts held that a one-sided directive from the manufacturer was not enforceable.

First Sale Doctrine

The "first sale doctrine" is the legal doctrine that protects the items that you make from copyrighted fabric and sell. Under the first sale doctrine, a copyright owner can enforce its rights the first time it sells an item. After the first sale, the item enters the stream of commerce, and the copyright owner's control ends. With copyrighted fabric, the first sale occurs when the copyright owner licenses or sells its copyright to the fabric manufacturer. When you purchase the fabric from a fabric store, your purchase is a subsequent sale that the copyright owner cannot control.

Disclaimers

In spite of the legal restrictions presented by the first sale doctrine, some copyright holders nevertheless try to enforce their copyright protection against individuals who make and sell items from copyrighted fabric. You may be able to reduce the risk of a rights owner attempting to enforce its rights against you by using a disclaimer when you sell your products. Whether you sell online, at a craft bazaars or in a retail store, it can't hurt to include a disclaimer on your website, at your booth or on your packaging that clearly states that your products are not associated or affiliated with the original copyright owner.

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Is an Original Work Without a Copyright Label or Disclaimer Still Protected by Copyright Laws?

References

Related articles

What Is the Copyright Law Regarding Artwork?

A variety of copyright laws are specific to artwork, as artwork provides some considerations unique to other copyrighted materials. In particular, artwork is subject to the Visual Artists Rights Act, the first sale doctrine and specific resale rights which vary by location. Finally, artwork can be subject to rules regarding works made for hire, since artwork is often commissioned.

The Right to Sell Copyrighted Material

A copyright is a bundle of rights that includes a legal monopoly on the right to sell a particular work of authorship. If you wish to sell material copyrighted by someone else, or to sell a work that incorporates such material, you might be able to rely on one of two strategies: either take advantage of exceptions to copyright protection or obtain permission from the copyright holder.

How to Get Permission Of Copyright Owners

Copyright infringement, which can include something as seemingly innocuous as using a photo on a blog, carries stiff penalties, so you should seek permission from copyright owners before using their material. A copyright grants exclusive rights to "original works of authorship," which includes literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and some certain other categories of original works. This copyright enables copyright owners to reproduce, sell, perform, display and create derivative items from their own copyrighted material. However, copyright owners will often grant permission to others who wish to use their copyrighted materials, and they may offer licenses that prospective users can purchase through an agent or copyright licensing company.

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