Copyrights and the Woodworker

by Lambdafarm on March 2, 2011

I recently did a fretwork portrait of someone’s dog from a photograph. I cannot post it here, though, because I do not have permission from the photographer to do so. Permission, you ask? Yes, you need permission.

In recent years several different software packages have come out that will take a digital image, whether that is a drawing or photograph, and make a pattern out of it. You can then take the pattern and cut a reasonable approximation of the original photograph.

However, as at least one formerly prominent pattern maker found out, photographs are copyrighted. The photographer automatically owns the copyright, whether they register that photograph with the copyright office or not. Using those photographs as the basis for a pattern without the permission of the photographer is considered copyright infringement. You can be sued and end up paying some hefty legal fees, damages, and a licensing and royalty fee if you lose.

Now, it is unlikely Aunt May is going to go after you for taking the snapshot of her daughter and making a portrait of it. Not, that is, if you just give it to her for Christmas. However, selling either the pattern you made or the fretwork portrait can get you in trouble.

This doesn’t mean you can’t make fretwork portraits and patterns from existing works. What it does mean is that you need to get written permission to use the photograph for your pattern, and to sell the pattern and/or the resulting fretwork work. Verbal permission is not adequate. It must be in writing.

If you take photographs of your work, and you should be doing that, you cannot post that photograph on your website or in your blog unless you have written permission to use it for a pattern and to display the resulting work online and in person. If this sounds like a hassle, it can be. However, a lawsuit is a bigger hassle.

To avoid such a suit, simply develop a boilerplate form that you fill out with the name of the photographer, a description of the photograph, a blurb giving you permission to use it to develop and sell a pattern based on it, and to display the pattern and a copy of the work on your website and in other publicity materials. Explicitly say you have permission to sell the pattern developed from the photograph and that the photographer understands no royalties will be paid on those sales or sales of the final product. Then have a place for them to sign and for you to sign. Make copies and use as appropriate.

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and the above is not legal advice. Consulting an intellectual property lawyer to look at your form is not a bad idea, or the local attorney if a specialist is not available where you live. The one time fee is a lot cheaper than being sued.

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