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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Coming Down on Both Sides of Fair Use

I belong to the online knitting group, Ravelry. Every four years the group runs a challenge that begins the night of the opening ceremony of the Olympics and ends with the closing ceremony. The point is to do a whole project in that time. My first time, I finished twelve inches of a long and complicated project. This time I did two tiny projects.

Sometime before the beginning of this year's challenge, Ravelry received a cease and desist letter from the Olympic committee. The challenge could go on but the name had to be changed from Ravolympics (can I even say that here?) to something that didn't fall under the trademark of the Olympics. I didn't hear about this on Ravelry, but in an NPR report. The group graciously changed the name; I don't remember what the new name is. Well, that's the point isn't it? The name had to be less memorable, because it could no longer be associated with the event it replicated.

While I thought the whole fiasco was pretty stupid, I do remember incidents that were not so off the wall. Remember the Obama photo that was made into a poster? The poster maker was sent a cease and desist letter and he sued sighting fair use.

No one seems to know what fair use really is and the only way to find out is to go to court.

A similar incident occurred when my Tai Chi teacher wanted to hand out copies of a book that was out of print, the author was dead, the publisher out of business, the book out of print and no one knew who owned the copyright. He wanted to make copies and send them to us electronically. No money changed hands. Fair Use?

From the time I started working on WWK and realized that pictures were required, I have been very careful what I chose. I use photos I have taken myself, or paintings that are at least 100 years old and thus in public domain. Or are they? Does the copy I am using actually belong to someone, even if the picture itself does not?

I have heard writers say that photographs, especially those on line, can be used by anyone who wants them. But why would photography or painting or any visual art be any less the property of the owner than writing?

It never occurred to me that Ravelry couldn't hold the Ravolympics. I imagine that WWK flies under the radar, but maybe not. Maybe all the pictures we use are in public domain or belong to the writer. We would certainly like to be popular enough so that we might get a cease and desist letter. Can Fair Use be fair? I sure don’t know the answer. Do you?


Ramona said...

Interesting, KB. I have taken to using no images at all on my blog posts. Easier that way. I'm sorry about the Rav(Can I say that here?)olympics changing the name, but what a fantastic idea.

Love the little knitted corpse! (I only used one ! in this comment, you will note.)

E. B. Davis said...

Your knitting projects are unique, KB. The problem I have with online photos--if the photos aren't marked in some way indicating that someone owns them, how do we know? In writing, the copyright is in the front of the book--black and white--no problem. Of the all the Google images, usually only a handful are marked with ownership rights. Without those marks, the assumption is that they can be used to illustrate a point. It feels like entrapment when there isn't any way to know, and then someone comes back at you for using them. I don't have an answer to your question, but if there are any lawyers out there who have definitive advise, please let us know.

Jim Jackson said...

The simple rule with photos is the same as for writing: someone created it and they own it. Therefore assume it has copyright protection unless you are told otherwise.

Through a blog by Caitlin Muir (I can't remember where she was writing) I discovered two great sites for usable digital photos. is a search engine for free photos. is another site that provides access to free photos.

In both cases free does not mean you can just use the photographs anyway you want. There are several alternative license agreements. Some provide full access. Others indicate that you cannot alter the photo. Often you have to give attribution. (A caption "photo by shanklaker from Flickr" would suffice.) So you need to pay attention to the agreements, but it is not onerous.

~ Jim

Warren Bull said...

Wikipedia commons is another possible sources although you may have to use attributions depending on the image. What do you mean we aren't famous? Ramona reads us!

Rhonda Lane said...

Lately, I've been embedding videos from YouTube into blog posts. They're free. If people don't want you to use them, they don't allow embedding.

If I need an image of a specific equestrian activity that's not in my own photo collection, I buy stock photos from

The free sites usually don't have what I need. Here are ways to find free photos, but you'll probably have to contact the photographer for permission:

Flickr's Creative Commons search

Linda Rodriguez said...

KB, I love your knitted figures, especially the corpse. I used to belong to Ravelry and am familiar with the Ravelry Olympics (perhaps it's okay to put it that way). It's rather like the Susan Komen people, who sue everyone who tries to use "anything for the cure" or pink anything. They've sued nonprofits and teenagers trying to raise money for their mothers' cancer treatment. Very ugly.

Ravelry wasn't trying to compete with the Olympics. Actually, I think it was the Yarn Harlot who first started the knitting olympics stuff--as a fundraiser for charity.

Oh well, we live in a litigious world. I do think those were trademark issues, however, not copyright.

Copyright is, of course, an issue that must be dear to a writer's or artist's heart. There are, as Jim pointed out, a number of sites for free images where all you must do is register and abide by the rules. And there are bit-torrent (pirate) sites where people scan in books almost as soon as they're published so others can download them without paying for them. Because they think the people who write and publish them are greedy for wanting to make any money from them.

KB Inglee said...

I agree with Jim, if you don't know don't use it. It may be second or third generation stuff with all the ownership info stripped. Copyright and Trademarks are two different things but they are both in place to keep other people from using your stuff. The reason for all the knitting photos was not to push knitting but to use photos that I know for a fact I own, becasue no one else knits lobsters in handcuffs.

Kaye George said...

The Olympics people are rabid. Sometimes I picture the ancient Greeks coming back from 2000 years ago to sue the present-day committee!

Years ago, when my kids were little, I helped out with a thing we called Olymp^@s of the Mind (so they won't see this)and they made us change the name of that--a public school program for the betterment of children! We changed it to Odyssey of the Mind, figuring Homer wasn't around any more. The program still goes on, and I think under that second name.

KB, your knitting rocks!

Warren Bull said...

I do have some sympathy for that international sporting event which shall remain nameless. After knitting could be mistaken for.. .white water kayaking? Um... pole vaulting? Just give me a moment. It will come to me.

Gloria Alden said...

I love your knitting, KB. I used to crochet, but never learned to knit.

I so wanted to include some of Norman Rockwell's pictures with my blog last week. I could have taken photos of the paintings from the book I own that I was referring to, but I knew that was not allowed. What pictures that are not my own, I get from a free art site connected with Microsoft. I'll have to try some of those others mentioned.

Kaye, it's still called Odyssey of the Mind.