The Difference between Licensing & Copyright & Why It Matters

Shakespeare's works were a big motivator in the first copyright laws.

Shakespeare’s works were a big motivator in the first copyright laws.

There is an alarming trend I’m seeing in the needlepoint world. Far too many companies, both large and small, are playing fast & loose with images they cannot reproduce and sell.

I was discussing the difference between licensing & copyright with a friend over the weekend. I suspect that some of the problem comes from ignorance between the two things. While people can have interesting discussions about intellectual property and its validity, the fact of the matter is that in selling these items, you do us all and the needlepoint world a great disservice.

Copyright started in the early 1600’s as a way for authors to control the printing of their books. They could give the right to copy, i.e. print, their work to a printer. If you did not have that right you could no legally print the book.

Copyright has been more clearly defined over the years but it is still a right given by the creator to someone else to make copies of the work. It can be limited in different ways and it has a clear ending date. In the US it is the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, I think. It can only be renewed a limited number of times.

Once an item is no longer protected by copyright it can be reproduced freely by anyone. This is why, for example you can get a bazillion different versions of Romeo & Juliet but only one of Harry Potter.

This is also why you sometimes see corporations or trusts as the holder of a copyright. It gives longer protection.

Only certain kinds of works can be copyrighted, things like books, article, songs, and movies.

Licensing is a different kettle of fish. They allow people or companies to reproduce certain works in certain media or on certain items. You can license images, works of art, names, or even trademarks. So things that cannot be copyrighted, a logo for example, can be licensed.

Licenses can live forever unlike copyrights. The license lives apart from the creator and his lifetime. The license is given by the owner of the work, not necessarily the creator, and it usually spells out exactly what it covers. Because the use of licensed material is in a contract often, but not always, the license has a term. It can also be cancelled by either party.

For example, the British company Sanderson has the license to create William Morris wallpaper and fabric. They have had it since Morris was alive. If your wallpaper is an actual Morris design and it isn’t from Sanderson, it is in violation of the license.

Why does this matter for needlepoint? There are two places where we should be concerned.

The first is Etsy. Sports teams, comic strips, and cartoons all license their images and logos, but how often do you see a stitched keychain of an NFL logo? Too often. Every single one of these is a violation. Possibly, but not necessarily, you could make one for yourself, but you cannot sell it. The NFL charges big bucks to license the logos and does prosecute.

So does Disney.

A bigger concern is the needlepoint canvases I’m seeing. While schools can’t license their school colors, every school that is in the NCAA has licensed their logo. Is that cute canvas you bought with the Cal bear on it properly licensed? Is your Yankees canvas licensed?

Works of art are often licensed to by museums and trusts. Yet I see shady companies taking licensed works and selling them illegally. I see companies even stealing properly licensed images off other companies’ web sites and selling them. I see big name designers taking images by an artist they did not license and selling them.

When you buy products or canvases like this you do two things. First you deprive the owner of the work the right to income from their property. Second you deprive the company who has licensed the work the income they should rightfully get for their work. Finally you encourage the companies creating unlicensed copies to keep on stealing what isn’t theirs instead of going out and getting designs correctly.

You can do something about it. You can ask the company if the design you love is licensed to them. Companies that have licenses will say so. Companies that don’t will be cagey. If you are unsure and know who controls the designs, call or email the company and ask for the licensing department. They can check to see if there is a needlepoint license. For many of these companies the cost to buy the license is so high there wont be a needlepoint license.

I’m mad about it. I wish it wasn’t happening. A few years ago it didn’t. Now many companies do this.

Is this what we want to say about an art we love so much?


  1. says

    Very interesting article. Even thought I don’t do needlepoint, I do cross stitching and other techniques, and found this article very informative and open up my eyes to special areas of copyrights and licenses that I haven’t think about. Thanks for a great article!!.

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