Understanding copyrights

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So you want to make a scrollsaw pattern. Just jump online, find a picture you want to use, download it and make a pattern, right?


The first thing we have to determine is, can we legally use the image for our purposes. This is not as straightforward as one might think as demonstrated by how often the subject of copyright comes up in message threads on sites all over the internet. Keeping our usage of an image in mind, original images fall into three licensing categories. They are Copyrighted, Creative Commons, and Public Domain. We will look at each type individually.



This is important - Every single image (photo and drawing) initially is protected by Copyright. This is important - Every single image (photo and drawing) initially is protected by Copyright.

Yes, I know the above repeats itself, but I can't stress this enough. Unless the image you are using is your own or specifically states a different form of license, you can safely assume it is protected by US Copyright Law.

So what exactly is Copyright? Copyright gives the creator of an original work exclusive right for a certain time period in relation to that work, including its publication, distribution and adaptation; after which time the work is said to enter the public domain. Copyright applies to any expressible form of an idea or information that is substantive and discrete and fixed in a medium. So simply stated, if you create an original work (photo, drawing, pattern from own photo or freehand), you have exclusive rights to how and where it's published, distributed, and altered. Therefore, if you want to use an image that is not your own, and no other license info is mentioned with the image, you must assume it is protected under US Copyright Law and contact the creator for permission to use the image.

For example (an experience of mine): I needed to do a cutting of teen pop star Jesse McCartney. No pattern was available. I found a picture of him on the net, but in the lower left corner of the image was the following "Copyright©2007 Michael Grecco". I went to Mr. Grecco's web site and sent him an e-mail asking him for permission to use the image. Three days later I received a reply thanking me for respecting his work and granting me permission to use the image. I was then legally able to make a pattern and distribute it.

About Asking for Permission

If you decide you would like to try and get permission to use an image, there are some things you should do that can make all the difference in the world.

  • First, Identify yourself. Give them your name and let them know where you are.
  • Next, Explain your interest and identify the specific image you wish to use. A link to it is usually helpful
  • Describe what you are going to do with the image. Don't assume the other person is even remotely aware of what a scrollsaw pattern designer is. Be as descriptive as possible.
  • Attach a photo you have used in the past, corresponding pattern, and picture of finished cutting (if you scroll) for illustrative purposes.
  • Explain how the derivative work (pattern) will be used. Posted on a message board for others to use, sold, kept for yourself
  • Let them know that you will be happy to include any credits they require on the pattern. (This is very important)

In most cases you will normally get a favorable reply. Most artists appear to be thrilled that you are interested in their work and will only require either a small "Original Artwork copyright©20xx Artist Name" and possibly a link to their website.

Make sure you save copies of all of your correspondences with the creator, both his and yours. If a year goes by and they see your pattern of their image on the net and e-mail you asking what gives, you'll be glad you have the documented permission.

That's Copyright at its simplest. For more detailed information I would recommend the following web sites.

The last site deals with one last point. Copyright is not forever. Any photographs and drawings published in the United States before 1923 are not protected by US Copyright Law. You may use them any way you like for any reason you like. Of course you must verify the image was actually published before 1923 and you should give the original creator credit anyway. You would like credit for your work wouldn't you?

Creative Commons

You've gone to a website to get a photo, and when you click on the image, the text under it says, "Licensed Under Creative Commons License, please read terms of license before using."

What is Creative Commons? With a Creative Commons license, you keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit — and only on the conditions you specify.

So in the definition above, the creator (photographer or artist) still holds the copyright on the image. You are allowed to use it, only if your usage falls within the terms of the Creative Commons license for that particular image. Do not make the assumption that all images by the same photographer will have the same Creative Commons license. In general, you don't need to contact the creator of the image in order to use it.

More common "conditions" would include:

  • May not sell copies of original or derivatives
  • Cannot use for commercial purposes (If you design patterns or scroll as a business you may need to contact creator on this)
  • Must give creator credit on copy or derivative
  • Must include a copy of this Creative Commons License

Believe it or not, scrollsaw pattern designers have been using a very informal and general Creative Commons type license with their patterns. Have you ever downloaded a pattern that said, "copyright©2008 Designer's Name, for personal use only, do not sell or distribute." This is Creative Commons at its most basic. You can copy the pattern as many times as you want, but you can't sell it or repost it. The pattern maker has retained their copyright but has placed conditions on how you may use the pattern.

One of the best places of information on Creative Commons Licensing is the Commons.org Website. You will find a bunch of useful info including current Creative Commons News and even a license generator.

Another site with very little information but a few cute and informative flash movies is http://mirrors.creativecommons.org/ Creative Commons Movies.

Public Domain

This is the last type of license we need to look at.

Of course the first thing we have to do is define Public Domain. Any work that is not covered by copyright registration is considered to be in the public domain. This includes works created before 1923, created for public use, or those works that have over the years fallen into public domain because the copyright expired. This includes documents of the United States government, unless stated otherwise.

Ok, the first sentence seems pretty straightforward. If it's not copyrighted it must be in the public domain. But wait a minute; in the first section on copyright it said that all works initially are copyrighted. So how do you know when copyright no longer applies?

This is the most complicated part of copyright law, and that's knowing when a work has passed into the public domain. There are whole articles, flowcharts, and lists devoted solely to this one aspect of copyright law. Below is a short list of categories of work that will always be in the public domain.

  • All work published in the United States before 1923.
  • Any work created by the United States Government is automatically in the Public Domain
  • Any work that has been published by the author with a statement declaring that the work is being released to the Public Domain.

Here is a link to a very useful little Interactive Slider to help you determine if an image you wish to use is under copyright protection or if the image has fallen into the Public Domain. As you can see from the items on the right hand side of the slider, there are many different criteria needed to determine if copyright applies. The real sticky area is the timer period between 1923 and 1973. Public Domain status will be determined based on whether the copyright was renewed or not. In order to make this determination, you will need to go to The US Copyright Office. You can search the copyright database to check on renewal of copyright. It's a little tedious, and with all of the images available on the internet, you may want to skip things published during this time period unless the creator has placed the work in the public domain (bullet point 3 above).

The easiest places to find public domain images are the websites that only handle public domain works. One such website is Public Domain Pictures.Net. On their homepage it states, "PublicDomainPictures.net is a repository for free public domain photos. You can upload your own pictures and share your work with others." This is a blanket statement covering the entire website. You can expect that every photo is public domain.

This is a quote from the License Statement with every photo on their website, "This image is public domain. You may use this picture for any purpose, including commercial. If you do use it, please consider linking back to us. If you are going to redistribute this image online, a hyperlink to this particular page is mandatory." As you can see, the image is yours to do with as you will. The license is very specific as to online usage of the image.

There are many other public domain websites on the internet. A google search will uncover a great deal so I won't be listing them all here. Whenever you visit a website for the first time, take the time to read their copyright notice, usually a link can be found on the bottom of the page. Also read any text that accompanies the image you are interested in. I have seen many so called Public Domain websites actually have copyrighted material and Creative Commons material available as well. A perfect example is US.Gov website. Read the paragraph right under the header and you will see that not everything could be public domain.


This is the bane of our existence as pattern makers. Many of the subjects that we like to make patterns of fall under this heading.

Of course, we need to define just what a trademark is: A trademark or trade mark is a distinctive sign or indicator used by an individual, business organization, or other legal entity to identify that the products and/or services to consumers with which the trademark appears originate from a unique source, and to distinguish its products or services from those of other entities.

That sounds like a lot of legal speak. So simply put, a Trademark is nothing more than an identifying symbol, picture, phrase, etc that identify a product or business. We see them every day and think nothing of them. McDonald's® Golden Arches, Coca~Cola®, Pepsi®, NASCAR®, Harley Davidson® Logo. Getting the picture?

If you were to ask someone for a Kleenex®, what would you expect them to bring you? A beverage?, Cotton Swab?, no, you would expect a facial tissue. The name Kleenex® is a Trademark. It identifies that company's product to the point that now when we think tissue, we think Kleenex®. Companies defend their Trademarks viciously, and acquiring a license to use a trademark is extremely expensive.

So how do we know if something is a trademark or not? Notice the paragraph above. Everytime I mentioned Kleenex®, there is a little symbol next to the word. Lets look at the Two symbols that denote a trademark in the US.

  • ® A letter R inside a circle denotes a Registered Trademark or Trademark that has been registered with US Patent and Trademark Office
  • ™ A small TM denotes a trademark not yet registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office

The proper placement of these symbols is immediately to the right of the mark and superscripted.

But wait, the Golden Arches that represent McDonald's® don't have a registered trademark symbol on them at the restaurant do they? Of course not; the symbol itself is registered with the Patent and Trademark office, but, since they will only appear at their own establishments and can't be removed from the site, it is not required. Notice on their placemats and graphics hanging in the stores and you will see the little logo everywhere. That is because those items may possibly leave the premises, so they need to identify their trademarks.

Now let's briefly (I hope) look at one of the most requested type of pattern made by scrollers, NASCAR®. Those six letters arranged in that particular order are a registered trademark. Here's where it gets fun. You cannot trademark an actual person, vehicle, or building. So that means the drivers and their cars are fair game, right? Wrong!

What is the one thing that no racing team can operate without? SPONSORS! Yup, take a look at any driver's uniform or hat, and of course their car. There is barely any space on any of those things not covered by a sponsor's (yup you guessed it) TRADEMARK. So this means you are only able to make a pattern of the driver or his car as long as none of the sponsor logos are present. Now you know why none of the pattern sites allow NASCAR® patterns to be posted.

Another question involving trademark and even copyright that I've seen runs something like this, "Can't I post the pattern if I state on it that the pattern or the cuttings made from it are not to be sold?" The answer to this one is also a big fat NO.

Here's the reason why. This time I will use the Harley Davidson® logo as my example. People are passionate about their HD Motorcycles and accessories. Many people collect anything to do with HD products. Certainly if you sell the cuttings of say an 8x10 portrait of their logo, you are violating HD's trademark. So you decide to make the pattern available online. You are now distributing their logo without their permission and by doing so, possibly diluting the marketplace for Harley collectibles. This could possibly reduce revenue for licensed distributors of Harley merchandise. The only legal way you can distribute your pattern, is contact Harley and apply for a license to become an authorized distributor of Harley collectibles. You could then include on the pattern, "Officially licensed Harley Davidson® Pattern".

I remember a couple of years ago, Jeff Zaffino had a pattern published in one of the scrollsaw magazines of a Harley. I believe that in the article it mentioned that the pattern was made from a photo of his friend's motorcycle, provided by his friend. Missing from the pattern, as well as all of the photos of the original cutting, was the Harley logo and name. To include them in the magazine would have been improper use of the trademark and would have opened the magazine and Jeff up to potential legal issues.

So if you want to make a pattern of your favorite stock car driver and his car with all the sponsor logos intact, go ahead. Make a cutting of it, that's fine too, even give a cutting as a gift if it's your friend's favorite driver too. You just cannot distribute the pattern or give away hundreds of copies of cuttings of it, nor can you sell any of it.


The responsibility is yours to ensure that you are using the materials from a given website in a responsible manner. Please make sure you read and understand the terms of use for each website you visit and each image you would like to use. I've seen too many websites grab attention by claiming "Free Images". This does not mean Public Domain, it just means you don't have to pay for the image.

NOTE: It is important to remember, If you use a protected image for personal use only (just like recording the SuperBowl®) you are generally ok. As soon as you begin to distribute it is when you have violated the protections outlined above. This includes e-mailing a pattern you have made of a protected image to someone else. It does not matter how it is distributed, just don't do it.

Hopefully this Wiki article has helped answer some of your questions around the usage of images you find on the internet. This article in no way is a complete referrence on the subjects discussed. I encourage each of you to do further reading on your own around copyright and the other forms of licensing that you may encounter.

Nothing in the above Wiki article should be considered legal advice. I am not an attorney nor have I consulted with one in creating this. If after further research into your use of an image and you still have questions of a legal nature, please contact a copyright attorney or select a different image.

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