The Ultimate Guide to Protecting Your DIY & Hobbies

for Artists, Builders, Hobbyists, and Tinkerers

Your hobby is a large part of who you are. It's what you do when you have free time, how you maintain a creative outlet, and how you express yourself to others. Yet sometimes, when a tinkerer creates a new idea that has benefit in the market, the hobby can become more than just something to do.

Whether you're a crafter creating and reselling your goods, a builder looking to create a new device or structure, a hobbyist tinkering in programming, modeling, or robots, or a tinkerer creating something new, an understanding of things like copyrights, trademarks, and fair use is important. Here's what you need to know about these important factors.

Basic Definitions of Legal Protections for Hobbyists

Before delving into a close look at what you can and can't do with your hobbies, we need to take a moment to define some basic terms. These terms apply to all things that are created or the tools used to create them. Understanding them is essential.

Trademark
A trademark is an identifying symbol that distinguishes the creator of a product. It can be used to protect things like:
  • Words
  • Slogans
  • Names
  • Design
  • Symbols
  • Images
If a trademark is used to identify the source of a service, not a product, it may be called a service mark, but both protect the same things.
For more about trademarks, visit:
Patent
A patent protects an invention. It gives the right to the invention to the inventor. Here are some facts about patents:
  • Patents are valid for 20 years.
  • Patents must be filed in each country where protection is wanted.
  • Patents exclude others from exploiting an invention during the protection period.
For more information about patents, visit:
Copyright
A copyright protects the original works of an artist or author, including both published and unpublished works. This includes thinks like:
  • Art
  • Literature
  • Dramatic productions
  • Musical pieces
  • Photography
  • Movies
  • Computer software
  • Novels
  • Poetry
  • Architecture
Copyrights do not protect ideas, methods of operation, systems or facts. Copyright protection exists the moment a project is created, and does not require filing any paperwork. Artists can register a copyright to ensure protection, but this is not required.
For more information about copyrights, visit:
Fair Use
Fair Use refers to the copying of copyrighted material for a limited and transformative purpose. This might include:
  • Commenting on a work
  • Criticizing a work
  • Parodying a work
This type of use doesn't violate copyright law or require the owner's permission. For more information about fair use, visit:
Open Source
Open Source is a created item that people are given permission to modify and share. Open Source items are readily available through public access venues. Most of the time, open source refers to software which is provided to the public for improvement and software development. For more information about what open source means, visit:

What Can I Do With It?

Imagine you wish to create a model of the Eiffel Tower. You sit down to create one and are happy with your result. You decide to put your model up on Etsy to try to sell. Is this allowed?

These are the types of questions that hobbyists and crafters must answer all of the time. While copyright law creates a great amount of protection for you, it can also create confusion when you wish to use items created by others. Now that we have discussed some basic terms, it's time to talk about what can and can't be done with specific pieces. Here are some common questions and the facts behind them.

Can I Use It?
Hobbyists and artists often use items created by others in their own pursuits. The first question you must answer is whether or not you can use something that you may have found. The best way to decide if you can use a material is to work through a copyright decision tree. Here are some questions to guide you:
  • Is it public domain or open source? If so, then you can use it.
  • Did you create the item? If so, then you can use it.
  • Are you using the item in a limited way for personal use? Then you can probably use it with attribution.
  • Is the item a derivative of someone else's work and not recognizable? If so, then you can use it.
  • Does the item contain an exact copy of someone else's work? Unless that is from a stamp or mold that has been made available commercially, you can't use it.
  • Is the item from a project done in a class? If so you can use with attribution to the teacher.
  • Does the item contain a recognizable character created by someone else, like a cartoon character? If so, you can't use it.
  • Does fair use apply? If so, then use it
  • Does the item have a patent? This applies to technology hobbies, but always check first.
 
If you can't answer these questions with a "yes," then you need to seek permission before using an item. For more questions, take a look at these copyright trees:
Can I Sell It?
Use is one thing, but reselling something that another person has a copyright to is another. When you profit financially from someone else's work or idea, you have a much higher risk of being cited or sued for copyright infringement.
While the rules about copyrights are still the same, you are going to get into more trouble if you sell something for personal gain that you didn't fully create. Here are some guidelines to consider:
  • Products made from a pattern: Technically the pattern's creator is the owner of the copyright on the pattern, and reselling items made from the pattern is illegal. However, most craft and sewing patterns, for instance, have copyright conditions on their patterns, allowing for the reselling of items made from the pattern. Always check; when in doubt, reach out to the creator for clarification.
  • Products with licensed characters: As cute as the Mickey Mouse character may be, if it's a licensed Disney character, you can't sell items made with his image without a licensing agreement. That said, the First Sale Doctrine indicates that purchasing fabric or other similar materials with a copyrighted character, then making it into a product, allows you to resell. So, something sewn out of Mickey Mouse fabric is safe, but a printed flyer with a Mickey Mouse image downloaded from the Web is not.
  • Products with mascots or logos: If a product has a mascot or logo on it, it's in violation of trademark law for you to resell it without permission. Remember, mascots and logos are trademarked by the organization that created them, and this includes sports teams and mascots.
The Effect of the Medium
While copyright and trademark laws are universal across hobbies, there are some instances when the medium of the craft or hobby affects your ability to sell or use items. Here are some popular hobbies and the way in which copyright law applies:
  • Sewing and crafting - Most sewing and crafting activities involve patterns and materials, and the patterns as well as some images on materials may have a copyright. You will need to check the copyright permissions given on the pattern, and see if the First Sale Doctrine applies to the materials before      selling.
  • Robotics and programming software - Much of what is done in the programming and robotics world is done through open source code and software. Open source has no restrictions. However, always double check that the materials and products you're using are, in fact, open source.
  • Robotics and computer inventions - In the robotics and programming fields, patents play a larger role than copyrights. Hobbyists who discover something new need to register a patent if they wish for protection.
  • Building and models - Like sewing and crafting, building and models typically use a pattern or architectural blueprints. Unless you're creating the pattern or instructions yourself, copyright laws may apply. That said, you aren't restricted from using the image or likeness of a public building in a model, as long as you don't use its trademark or logo or base your design off actual blueprints.
  • Tinkering and modification - Modifying an existing creation is where copyright, patent and trademark law because a bit ambiguous. If something has a patent that is still valid, you can't modify it and gain from that modification. You can modify it for personal use, in most instances. After the patent period      expires, you can file for a patent for improvement to make your addition to the item.
As you can see, the laws apply differently to different types of hobbies, so it's worthwhile to learn more about your hobby before you start profiting from it.

Help! Someone Stole My Design!

As a hobbyist or artist, you're going to run into situations where someone might steal your hard work. Sometimes these are obvious attempts to steal your intellectual property, but other times they are simple mistakes made by other hobbyists or crafters who fell in love with what you've made. While imitation may be the greatest form of flattery, you do need to ensure that your rights are protected, particularly if you're trying to sell your creations. If you realize this has happened, you need to take action. Here's what you can do:
  • First, confirm infringement has actually occurred. If the person uses your copyrighted material to      reproduce the work, create a derivative work, distribute copies of your work, perform your work publicly, display your work publicly or perform your sound recording publicly, then you may have a case of infringement.
  • If infringement has occurred, first contact the person or company. Sometimes, especially in the case of other crafters and hobbyists, the individual may not be aware that they've done something wrong. When contacting the guilty party, threatening legal action can help get a fast result.
  • As soon as you're aware of the problem, register your copyright. This provides advantages should you have to sue for infringement. In fact, without a registered copyright, you can't file a lawsuit.
  • If the individual refuses to stop using your work, contact an attorney to discuss your options.
  • Decide if you're willing to take on the cost of a court battle to insist on your protections. Sometimes the value of your work is not worth the cost of legal action.
  • If you aren't going to use a lawyer, send a cease-and-desist letter. If you are using a lawyer, the attorney will do this for you.
  • If the work is used online, contact the website's owner or the website's ISP to ask that the work be taken down.
  • Put together all the proof you have that the work is, in fact, yours. Be sure to make copies of the infringing work if needed to ensure it's not taken down to hide guilt.
  • If these actions fail and you need to protect your copyright, you will need to partner with a copyright infringement lawyer.
Before starting this process, you need to know:
  • Stopping copyright infringement isn't time consuming.
  • You most likely won't need a lawyer for simple cases.
  • Information published online is not free for the taking, so yes, your copyright is protected.
  • Most people respond and take down infringement with a simple request.
  • Sometimes threatening legal action is all you need to do.
  • Using a lawyer is costly, so you will need to determine if the benefits outweigh this cost.
For more information about copyright infringement, visit:

Additional Resources for Further Reading

Do you want more information about copyrights, trademarks, patents and your hobbies? Consider these resources:
*Disclaimer: This piece is for information use only and is not intended as legal advice.

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