Copyright & Cross Stitch

We’ve detailed how to set up an Etsy store, and how to make patterns, and you’re all ready to go with the money making adventure of a lifetime!
But wait. Where’s legal? You don’t have one? Bah! It’ll be fine!

I’ve been there. I know that the idea of legal aid is just plain scary. But you know what’s worse? When you get a letter from Nintendo saying you’ve broken copyright law and you need to take down your pattern.
As it happens the Pokemon company was pretty cool about it. Not only did they understand that I just took an image off Google without realizing I was doing wrong (apparently a VERY large problem nowadays), but they also sent over some details on how to avoid it in future.
Turns out that this little foray into the world of scary law firms is a regular occurrence for the Etsy community, and even more so for cross stitch pattern makers. But it still didn’t scare me into shutting my shop for 3 years…

But fear not! Copyright law is actually pretty simple. There’s even an acronym. FCCP. I didn’t say it was a good acronym.
In fact, I’m going to do this out of order…

Shared under Creative Commons License!
Shared under Creative Commons License!


Whilst copyright has 4 distinct flavors, one of those in plain old vanilla copyright. When someone creates something they have a copyright on that thing. However, not that many people say they own it. Instead, it’s implied. If it’s implied, then look to the other three options here.
But if you see that little copyright symbol, then stay away. The person who created it has full rights, and unless you ask (and they agree) to use it, you’re in breach of the law.

Public Domain

The public domain rarely applies in the world of the internet. The reason? You have to go through a rather tedious process to make it public domain. Like dying.
I’m serious. There are two ways something can be public domain:

  • The creator is dead AND no one owns the copyright
  • The creator willingly gave up permissions

You’re never really going to know if something is public domain or not unless it is very old (and even then it’s not guaranteed; the Happy Birthday song had a copyright until last year), and you have to bear in mind that someone might be using it under fair use or creative commons licenses.

Fair Use

Fair use is the first part of copyright law that you can actually use to your advantage (So long as your in the USA, sorry the rest of the world). I’ll use an example:
My favorite artist came out with a new painting, and I use the image to create a cross stitch pattern and make a cross stitch – fine.
Then I try to sell the pattern – That’s not fair use.
You see, fair use allows you to use copyrighted material for education, research, or personal use (there is an exception here about benefiting public good, but unless your Edward Snowden you’re not going to be using that).

Creative Commons

This is where it gets really juicy. If you find an image, which is copyrighted, then you can ask to use it. Some people will say no; so be prepared for that. However, others will say you can. There are often restrictions on this type of thing, so just be aware of those, but this is your only source of images (unless they are totally original).

The Exceptions

Yes, there is ALWAYS an exception. In this case its purchasing rights. Some websites out there use a creative commons license with their images. You can use them personally, or commercial websites/literature. However others offer royalty-free images with no caps. This means that if you wanted to you could sell the image onto someone else straight away, no edits required. However, it also allows you to make cross stitch patterns for sale.

So now you can set up your store in the safe knowledge you’re covered by copyright. Phew!

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Jo

    I’m just starting out and just made my first design. I made a Moana cross stitch design. But it’s not like I just uploaded an image into the designer and outputted. It’s based on Maui’s tattoos, and I had to do some creative alterations to make sure it works as a cross stitch pattern. Is this doable or do I need to stay away from fandoms like Zelda and video games and Disney? What kind of wording should I include in my descriptions? Something like “Moana is owned by Disney, and I do not own the rights of the character.” or something? Thanks!

    1. LordLibidan

      Well, that’s a hard thing to answer really. The legal answer is “stay away from any fandom”. However if your design is INSPIRED then it makes things a little harder. Disney could still throw a DMCA your way, but my making it clear in your item title that its inspired, you stand the best chance of avoiding it.
      As for the blurb that people put in the descriptions; these offer you no protection at all, and are totally meaningless.

  2. Catt

    There are a million books and pictures on the internet for alphabets and border designs. I’m really confused about what can or cannot be used. 1) For example, a book showing 17th century samplers … could I base my version of a border on one from the 17th century? 2) If I make my own alphabet, I’m sure there’s only so many ways one can make a classic “a” without it having been used by SOMEONE before. Can I use it? 3) Can I legally use movie/book quotes? 4) I have a pattern from a 1990s cross stitch magazine that is now out of print. I made a pattern of different styled characters but based it loosely on that (they made 3D matryoshka dolls, a used the shapes/face styling to make Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus). Is that saleable? I have no way of tracking down the artist or magazine anymore. — All these issues have stymied me from moving forward. I really appreciate any advice you can give!

    1. LordLibidan

      The first thing to ask is; is this commercial?
      If it’s not commercial, and you’re only using it for personal things, then you can use anything!
      That said; my responses below for commercial use:
      1 – There should be a specific line in the front of the book detailing if you can use the patterns for commercial use. The fact that it’s from the 17th century does NOT guarantee you can use it.
      2 – This is a simple one. In order to be OK to use, your alphabet needs to be at least 40% different from another one out there. But that’s for the whole alphabet. So assuming some of your letters match, that’s fine! So long as more than 40% don’t match a singular already published alphabet.
      3 – No. You cannot use movie or book quotes. Some copyright owners are more diligent in sending cease and desist letters than others, but you shouldn’t be using them at all.
      4 – See above the 40% rule. Assuming the actual designed faces are different, this should be OK. But to be clear; even if the magazine is out of print; they still own the copyright for another 33 years (at the time of writing). So it does need to be at least 40% different.
      Hope that helps!

      1. Catt

        Thanks! Yes, I meant all of the above for commercial sale. I’m surprised about the quotes from movies or books because I see them ALL the time all over Etsy.

  3. adrianne

    What if I find a picture on Pinterest I love and want to make a cross stitch of it then sell but I cant find the artist. What do I do then?

    1. LordLibidan

      Even if you can’t find the original artist; you still can’t copy it or use it.
      However, if you’ve found an image on Pinterest, I would suggest doing a reverse image search on google images. This may be able to help you find the original artist.