Unraveling Copyright for Patterns

Below is an actual question that I have seen on Reddit, received on Facebook, and chosen not to answer on forums. But now is the time to unravel some copyright questions.

I found a crochet pattern, and I hate it. I had to re write it in different terms to understand it. How much would need to be changed in order to have a new pattern? Plenty of designers get ideas from crochet pieces they see. But they come up with their own ideas or spin on what they’ve seen. When is it “my” idea? I’ve heard figures of everything from 10% – 20% needs to be changed, but an article from Vogue Knitting states that there is not a legal percentage

This person is correct. I cannot give you a magic percentage and say it is OK. Oh, no. Copyright is not that simple.  So since I can’t make this simple with a percentage, let’s start from the beginning.  Copyright is the protection of an expression of an idea.  It is not protecting the facts, the process, or the use.  A knitter can’t prevent anyone from making a sweater. But what about that exact sweater?  Well, it depends a bit on just how fancy of a sweater we are talking about.

If it is a useful, wear it on a cold day, sweater that you can find 1000 variations on Etsy, then the only copyright the person has is in the photos or graphics and the non-functional parts of the instructions.  This is a lot like the recipes post.  If it is all function and no creative expression, then it isn’t covered by copyright.

Now if the “sweater” is actually art, and I mean like “How can they do that with yarn?” art, that’s a different question.  Or if the sweater has an amazing depiction of my cat’s face, then that cat face may be protected. That means when I get the above question, I ask “What’s is the thing you are making? What, if anything, are you taking from the pattern instructions? And can you teach me how to read those stupid patterns because I have no idea what ‘Sc3tog-over next sc and next 2 ch and PM on this st.’ means?”

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