December 12, 2006

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Be careful who you knit for:
Copyright and crafts

by Bascha Harris

When we talk about intellectual property rights and copyright at Red Hat, we're usually talking about code--or music. The company ethos hinges on the idea that the free exchange of ideas will improve all things--from the education of children to the robustness of the kernel. Our focus is usually on technology. But not today.

Today we're going to talk about knitting.

Yup, knitting. Maybe you have a grandmother who crafts hideous sweaters in the wintertime, or, given the hobby's recent popularity, you might ride to work with a knitter on the subway. In fact, you might have friends who knit or even be a knitter yourself. Some folks take it up as a restful hobby, or because they really like the math.

By copyrighting popular approaches to common problems, the pool of innovation shrinks, and the end product is less than what it could be.

There are sites and blogs dedicated to knitting all over the web. Knitty is a knitting 'zine that publishes seasonal issues filled with free patterns from many popular knit designers. Bloggers like Wendy offer up dozens of patterns from their personal collections. And offshoots of the culture include sites like You knit what?? that take on the fug role providing social commentary.

Sound familiar? Groups of knitters have formed the same way groups of developers do. They share their best work, help each other with problems, and even participate in community service. Programmers come together for projects like the One Laptop Per Child or K12 Linux. Knitters gather to make caps for chemotherapy patients or warm blankets and clothes for many in need.

But what does this have to do with intellectual property and copyright?

Patterns for knitting--like music, software, and even recipes--can be copyrighted. US and UK law contain copyright protections for knitted patterns and work under the articles on visual arts. US law makes a distinction between the useful object--which is not copyrightable--and the artiface that is. This separation is present in technology law as well. In software terms, the concept (web server, database program) is the useful object and the execution (interface or particulars of operation) is artiface.

A server cannot be copyrighted, nor can a sweater. But the blueprint for a specialized server or the pattern for a complex fair isle sweater can be owned outright, and its usage restricted.

Even a "free" pattern, like a "free" OS, can be copyrighted. The owner of the pattern can choose to share it, and still control the terms under which it can be used. For instance, you may be able to install a free OS on your computer and hack it to add new features and brilliant functionality. But without the proper license, you can't deploy it in production or even return your improvements to the codebase. By the same rule, you can use a free pattern to knit a cozy sweater. You can wear the sweater, or give it as a gift, but you can't sell the sweater or republish a modified version of the pattern.

In both places, copyright has slowed improvement. Copyright can interfere with the best efforts of people to share and develop their work.

These laws intend, of course, to credit the work of the artist--the genius that turns something ordinary into something remarkable. But the line between ordinary and remarkable is indistinct, and judging what is a mere useful object and what is copyrightable variation is difficult at best. Who decides if similar items are a product of infringement or parallel development--or mere coincidence?

And what happens when the marketplace--the Internet--is flooded with variations? In software and in music, we have seen the result. Companies fortunate enough to afford legal assistance sprang into action to protect their intellectual property. Proprietary software vendors sued groups and institutions, including school districts, that used their products without proper licenses. The RIAA took hundreds of people to court over music piracy.

Given our current system of law, and the prevailing attitudes about ownership of intellectual property, these lawsuits seem logical. But what is illogical is the idea that further use of a technology or artistic product always constitutes due harm. Music companies, for example, don't seem to be able to tie profit loss to piracy--in fact, in some cases, profits are up. Are music pirates really the financial drain the RIAA describes, or are they perhaps the best viral marketing campaign a record company could wish for? Only time will tell.

But in the meantime, music pirates and off-license developers are still considered by many to be the bad guys. And if they're evil-doers, what does that say about the rest of us? After all, copyright extends far beyond technology and tunes.

Apply the same thinking to knitting or any other craft. Will we one day see the big yarn companies defending their IP against grandmotherly knitters? Will I one day get a cease and desist notice from Chez Panisse because I shared their divine recipe for gingersnaps on my blog?

The way we think about open source and intellectual property has implications far beyond just software. Writing code is a craft, like cooking or knitting, and a program is much like a recipe or pattern. There are a million ways to make a chocolate chip cookie, or a winter afgan, or a user interface for a database. By copyrighting popular approaches to common problems, the pool of innovation shrinks, and the end product is less than what it could be.

In the world of operating systems, this leads to homoganized environments--no flexibility, no innovation, no choice. And when we apply these principles universally, we end up with a bland culture, where sharing is discouraged and great works are taken away from those who could most improve upon them.

And free magazines with delightful patterns--like Knitty--would cease to exist. And what would winter be like, with no cozy binary scarf to keep you warm?