What think you?

Having gotten good feedback on one complex set of opinions, I have another set of complicated opinions to put out there.  Please comment, argue, let me know what you think.  My opinion seems to be at a slightly different angle than most of the knitting world so far, so it’s certainly possible that I’m wrong or that I’m out of step.

The lovely Pam at Flint Knits recently posted about yarn stores using free patterns to teach classes.  I dig Pam’s blog and patterns and photos, so I’m always interested in what she has to say.  She was responding to an earlier post by Kate at Zeitgeist Yarns about her own patterns and their use.  Both of these ladies have generously offered some truly beautiful patterns for free, and if you’re not familiar with their work, I encourage you to check them out.  (There are a bunch of other blog posts on this – these are just the two I read.)

Kate and Pam had slightly different points, but I wanted to address the parts I agree with before I get to the parts where my opinions differ.  First of all, even the simplest pattern takes a good deal of work to write up so that other knitters can replicate your original.  Sizing patterns takes a good deal more work.  When designers offer their patterns for free, the very least that you can give them is credit.  Free means that you don’t have to pay for it, but it does not mean that the work is without worth, and credit is most of what designers have.  If you love a pattern enough to knit it, you love it enough to credit the person who took the time to think it up and put it down for you to knit.

Apparently, some local yarn stores have been offering classes in popular free patterns without crediting the designers or sources, and I think this is plain wrong.  I also think it’s wrong if the use violates the license on the pattern, as in the case of Kate’s free patterns.  However, I think there are some points being made about free patterns and the law that miss the mark.

First off, is it wrong for a yarn store to offer a class using a free pattern?  My answer would be, “Sometimes.”

In the case of a pattern with an explicit license forbidding use in a commercial venture, then yes.  In the case of a pattern that a store prints out and distributes without crediting the source, then yes.

However, if the store offers a class in a for-sale pattern, it’s usually a requirement that class participants purchase a copy of the book or pattern ahead of time.  If stores are directing class participants to obtain their own copies of the free pattern from the original source, then I don’t really see the problem, unless the pattern is, of course, licensed specifically against commercial use.

A momentary digression about licenses.  Licenses are contracts.  When you download any pattern, free or paid, you are, in essence, signing a contract to abide by the rules imposed by the license.  Not all patterns have a license attached.  Most of mine don’t.  Those that do, though, should inform you of the terms before you download the pattern.  Even if they don’t, your use of the pattern constitutes agreement.

What licenses are not is the law.  You cannot be dragged into criminal court over a license.  You can be sued, though, for violating a contract or for violating copyright law.  This is unlikely in the case of individuals, but could be justified if, say, a major manufacturer was violating copyright on a pattern.

Back to the subject of classes.  This is where I start to diverge from the opinions I’ve read thus.  I certainly do not think that knitting classes are making money unfairly in teaching from free patterns.  What is being sold, provided the patterns are obtained fairly, is instruction.  Knitting teachers who are not violating copyright have to create their own class materials, have to come up with methods of instruction, have to create a whole class schedule around their chosen project.  Looking at classes offered in the area, the focus is on skills obtained with an attractive finished object as a motivator.  You want to learn cables?  Great, we’ll make a cabled hat.  It’s more fun than a big old swatch.

Knitting teachers are sometimes designers, but not always.  And that is because these are separate skills.  If I want to take a class in modern American literature, I am not going to start ringing up authors on the New York Times Bestseller list.  If I sign up to take a class about themes of loneliness in American literature from 1955 to the present then I’m going to look at classes offered at local schools, and I’m going to have to purchase the class materials, which are certainly going to include books that are under copyright.  If the teacher wanted to refer to materials freely available on the internet, but still under copyright (this is increasingly common) then the teacher needs to refer the students to the source.

What he or she doesn’t need to do is ask permission of the authors to teach their work.  Though the teacher’s salary comes from teaching the words of other people, the skill of teaching is separate from the skill of writing.  There are many great writers who are not good teachers, and many great teachers who are not good writers.

Knitting classes are not simply a matter of printing out a pattern and handing it to people in the class.  The reason people take a class in the first place is because they want to get instruction, not because they want the pattern.  I’m not referring to knitting stores that are outright deceptive, passing a pattern off as their own or otherwise preventing the knitter from finding the pattern at its source.  That’s a different and clearly shady problem.  I just object to the characterization of knitting classes as being a way of making money off of someone else’s work.  It would be just as easy to apply that to any endeavor, including pattern writing.  I am working on a pattern currently that uses elements I learned from many sources, including Barbara Walker, Elizabeth Zimmermann, and whatever pattern first taught me seed stitch.  I got opinions on how to change parts of the pattern from the Lady.  The idea for the pattern, though, and the construction, the writing – putting it all together – this comes from my own work.  Teaching is not dissimilar.  The pattern is only one component in instruction.

Pattern writers are free to put a license on their patterns that forbids their use in classes, or that requires that a store ask permission before using the pattern for a class, and that’s fine.  We, as knitters, need to be aware of these licenses and avoid violating them.  I think, though, that the attitude that a teacher is somehow stealing money from a designer in using their free (or not free) patterns in order to teach a class is wrong, and should be considered by those of us who design.  If we want respect for our own intellectual property and skills, then we need to extend respect to other fields and understand the different skills involved in teaching.  My personal opinion is that a class that credits the designer fairly is likely to be a boost to that designer, not a leech on their material.

Thoughts?  I would love to hear from you on this.

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7 Responses to “What think you?”

  1. Jen Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve been trying for days now to grasp how teaching a class on knitting someone else’s pattern, whether it’s a free pattern or not, is making money from it. A knitting teacher is making money on his or her ability to teach.

    It seems to me that unless a designer has invented a particular technique that she and she alone wants to be able to teach to all the interested knitters out there, then it’s reasonable to expect that her beautiful and popular pattern might inspire inexperienced knitters to give it a try, and that the best venue for some of those knitters to learn will be in a class setting.

    Perhaps if I were a designer, I’d understand this issue better. As it is, I’m just not getting it, and I’m really perplexed by the ire directed at knitting teachers and LYSs. Yikes.

  2. travellersyarn Says:

    What a well written post. I think that some of the ire is misdirected, but that some is well deserved. Some of those patterns clearly limit the terms of their licence. I think the the whole business of copyright and pattern design is incredibly poorly understood. I have had people gasp when I’ve shown them a photocopied pattern, when I’ve photocopied the pattern from a book that I’ve bought, so that I don’t need to lug the whole book around. I’d defy ANYONE to show me how that does not fall within fair use. With my limited pattern writing experience, I use a creative commons licence.

  3. orata Says:

    I got a message from a LYS a few days before those posts asking permission to use a pattern in a class, and said “sure, no problem, just ask them to come to my site and give me credit” without thinking about it too much. Then I read those posts and started to think maybe I was totally wrong! It’s good to see your dissenting opinion (which falls more or less in line with mine.)

  4. Kate Says:

    What I always want to know is if there would be the same outrage if the teacher had said ‘hey, we’re going to be working on X pattern, please buy a copy before you come to class, or we’ll sell you one here for $Y.’

    If not, then they have no right to be angry about using properly sourced free patterns — in each case, the designer is getting what they have asked for in return for use of their pattern.

    I’d definitely recommend the “you can download it here” method of distribution over the “we’ll have copies for you,” if only because it ensures proper credit is given, but other than that, it seems like a rather odd argument to be having. If having your (generic you!) patterns used for classes bothers you that much, put a note on it asking people not to.

  5. Kate Says:

    I don’t really think that teachers and LYS are the focus of ‘anger’, ‘outrage’ or ‘ire’ at all – and they certainly aren’t in Pam or Kate G’s posts about this issue. The problem that they raise is the very particular one of individuals or companies making significant profits from something that was free, without reference to, or consultation with, the designer. The majority of LYS and knitting teachers are respectful to, and incredibly supportive of designers, and, indeed, often teach classes on particular patterns as a means of promoting or publicising their work. But there are clearly cases where LYSs are not supportive but exploitative — and this is certainly the case when they charge $100 per head for a class on a ‘free’ pattern without reference to, or consultation with the designer.

    Having recently taken legal advice about the unauthorised copying, distribution, and translation of my ‘free’ pattern, it was put to me that charging above a certain amount for a class (ie where the profits were disproportionate to the reasonable charge for the teacher’s time/ expertise and the store’s overheads) involved exactly the same legal issues as selling the pattern on at $5 a shot, since a significant profit was being made on the back of a non-profitable enterprise. There’s a basic economic principal here: At heart, a free pattern is a gift, not a commodity. But teaching that gift at $100 a time turns it into a commodity.

    No one is condemning teachers, LYS, or anyone else here. The key issue is simply respect. We must respect our designers, their creativity and their generosity in a fair and open way. We must value their labour and give credit and recognition where both are due. Frankly, all that Pam and Kate G were saying is: please read my terms of use, and have the courtesy to ask before taking something that is mine. To my mind, their important posts have inspired a certain amount of solidarity among the knitting community — designers, knitters, teachers, LYS owners, all of us — rather than created the divisions (teacher versus designer etc etc) that are suggested here.

    And as a literature professor, I have to say that entirely different legal issues are involved in teaching a literary text, or disseminating it for class use — though as with most copyright law there’s some messiness here too…

  6. Lia Says:

    As a teacher, I have been a bit baffled by the discussion around the blogosphere of late. I am the first one to step in and remind coworkers and customers that photocopying is illegal. I make sure that we hand out links to online patterns instead of printing them in the store.

    That said, I don’t understand how teaching how to knit a pattern is taking anything from the designer. The money that I make teaching is puny. If my classes fill, I make about the same hourly as my carpenter husband (except he gets union benefits, too). That’s if you only count the hours I’m actually in front of students. There’s also the time put in pre-knitting the pattern, making diagrams and instructional sheets for new or advanced techniques, and setting up the space. I also buy all my own materials, and pay 25% to the shop. And I offer free follow up help for 30-60 days after the class ends.

    I haven’t taught from anybody else’s free patterns so far, and now I am unlikely to. In fact, I am questioning whether it’s worth teaching ANY classes that aren’t based on my own designs.

    I started teaching knitting because I love to knit, and I love helping people figure out how to tackle a new skill. I thought that a class (assuming teacher/LYS sends students to the websites) would lead to increased exposure for the designer, and increased sales of any paid patterns. I have seen a couple of comments today from designers who don’t want classes to be taught around their books or paid patterns either. Isn’t getting a large group to buy your product a good thing? We’ve had books sit on our shelves more months until a class is offered, then we sell 5, 6 or more copies all at once.

  7. PandaWriter Says:

    Sorry to delurk just to disagree, but…

    From my reading of the sites where there was a discussion, the main problem WASN’T that the teachers were making money off the free pattern, but that they DIDN’T ask permission or give credit to the designer as was clearly stated in the copyright.

    From my reading of the complaints, the classes that started the discussion weren’t set up as “Come Learn Cables” but “Come Learn to Knit This Particular Sweater Pattern That Is Sweeping the Interwebs” without naming the designer of the pattern. The second version, especially, seems to me would require that the instructor ask permission of the designer (as was clearly stated as a requirement in the use of the free pattern), and that the instructor would clearly state in the class description … “pattern by Talented Knitwear Designer”.

    The fact that the teachers were making money off the pattern was brought up as only one reason why the instructors and stores should have treated the situation in a more business like manner by respecting the copyright requirements. But not, it seems to me, as the initial or main reason for the objection to the use of the pattern. The objection was based on the disregard for the copyright agreement. Don’t like the agreement? Don’t use the pattern.

    All the designers asked for was that the instructors and shops honor the copyright agreement. An e-mail or phone call to ask permission, and the name of the designer included in the class materials.

    All the explanations for why they considered it to be a bigger issue than it seems at first, especially when no money is changing hands, may have clouded the issue. But when you take away reasons and explanations and excuses, you are left with their initial and main request. Honor the legal copyright restrictions. And especially when you are engaged in a business transaction based specifically (in the case of the pattern and class that caused the initial discussion) on the use of those copyrighted materials.

    The fact that no money is charged for the pattern doesn’t make them free of all obligation.

    Just my opinion, for what it’s worth. Clearly stating the name of the designer and origin of the pattern, if your whole class is based solely on the use of that pattern, isn’t a lot to ask IMHO. Of course, I’m wrong about a lot of things on any given day, so feel free to ignore… especially since I don’t have a horse in this race, as my dad used to say!

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