Wednesday, 8 January 2014

My journey through the minefield that is copyright

This is a subject that's cropped up a lot recently so I thought that by detailing my accounts it may help some people who are starting their own papercut business not make the same mistakes that I did.
Like many crafty folk I'd already dabbled in glass painting, card making and other craft hobbies and I'd decided I'd try papercutting after seeing it on Etsy back in 2010. I made one for myself and uploaded it on Facebook, then a few more and very soon I had old schoolfriends asking me if they could buy them so I opened a page. Extra money for Christmas, awesome! I was the first crafty papercutter on Facebook. Oh, you should have heard me roar when Amy from Paper Dreams rocked up selling them too, haha! (Best of friends now, thankfully). Imagine it though, being the only one and there's hundreds now! Being the only one meant I was hugely naiive though, and I didn't have anyone to discuss anything with. Thankfully it's not the case now.
This is where I bare my soul - don't judge me too harshly! 
In the very beginning (first couple of weeks) I used Google images to add accents to my papercuts. I thought that the skill was in actually cutting the paper neatly rather than the design aspect, like "look at what I made! See how it's all attached and cut from paper?!' rather than 'this design is a reflection of what I was feeling that day and it's soft lines...oh, and it's also cut from paper'.
After a while I found Shutterstock, a bank of designs and images that you pay for. I had also found some papercutting buddies by then, too, so we all grouped together and bought a subscription. Suddenly we had all the images in the world! Brilliant. And we'd paid to use them so it was all good. We assured eachother that there were plenty to go around and if xxx was making that design then xxx wouldn't. Excellent. No problem there then. Or was there? See, after a while we realised that the images had a little bit of small print that said 'not for commercial use'. Did this apply to us? Oh dear, yes it did. Pants. Scrap that idea, then.
The key then was to obtain swirls and accents and to make them unrecognisable from the original, so a bit of a design helping hand. So you take a bit of swirl from one vector, then a leaf from another and maybe alter the shape a little by tweaking the nodes. That, and we found websites that offered commercial images for designers. Yes, you have to pay, but if you can't draw then it's the best way forward. I'm not sure the swirls I used were unrecognisable enough though, and by this time I was a bit spooked and unsure of what was and wasn't allowed. I couldn't draw myself. Hadn't done it for 15 years so I couldn't possibly make drawings good enough for papercut designs. (haha!)
At this point I decided to make papercuts using purely typography. Fonts are pretty in their own right and don't need accents! Hooray! Hang on a sec...why are some free and some you have to pay for? Here's that 'personal use only' term again. But I use loads of fonts!!! I have to pay for them ALL? Well, yes, yes you do. Your papercuts are getting quite expensive to make by this point, huh?
I went to buy a pencil.
A customer approached me and asked me to make a papercut based on their wedding invitation. I said yes, of course, but I'll have to alter it to make it my own. So, I redrew the invite, cut it out and it was lovely. I was so proud of myself, I'd drawn my own papercut design!
No, no, I hadn't. I'd taken somebody else's original concept and slightly adapted it, to which I found out when the original designer contacted me with a 'cease and desist' formal letter. I had never felt so bad since the day I gave my neighbour a cat foot sandwich instead of beef paste and she ate it (I was 10). I felt sick to my stomach. I honestly thought I'd done the right thing! I couldn't apologise enough and spent all evening in a turmoil. The lady thankfully believed that my intentions were good, forgave me and helped me with the best bit of advice I ever had, and that I'll pass on to you:
If you are an artist/designer/crafter and you sell your items then it's your duty to read up and know about copyright.

I have never been more grateful in my life for this piece of information that seems obvious enough, but it's not. Don't guess because it'll come back and bite you in the ass. She pointed me in the direction this book:
and for a few months it sat beside my toilet. It was really interesting and as well as telling me that I'd so far pretty much done everything wrong it also gave me some excellent tips for my new business.
The lass also went through my gallery and pointed out that the hare from 'to the moon and back' was copyright, even though it was silhouetted. The recognisable song lyrics (that weren't also regular everyday sayings) were copyright. The photographs I'd silhouetted? Also copyright.
I dumped 80% of my online gallery in the bin.

After this I went and purchased all of the fonts that I used regularly. I contacted a few font designers directly and got bulk deals in some cases.
I contacted as many of the Shutterstock designers that I could remember (and find) to offer them the profits I'd made from using their designs in part or full as my own and my apologies for not knowing any better. Funnily enough none of them ever came back to me, probably because they weren't interested in the measly £20 I'd made in profit and I was being up front and honest that I'd done something wrong.
I scrapped every single old design that 'I'd' made and started again. With a pencil and a sketchbook and NOTHING ELSE.
Funnily enough that's when Paper Panda took off and became popular. It never really was about the skill factor of being able to cut paper (in fact I know some papercutters that suck at cutting but they sell really well because their designs are the shizzle) but it was about the composition, the drawing, the characters, the originality of design.
I hold my hands up in that I did wrong, I absolutely did wrong and I totally should have read up on the whole shebang before I ever started selling papercuts (or anything else!) but now I know and I wouldn't go back again for the world. Want me to make a Tinkerbelle for £1000? No thanks, contact Disney.
Now there are thousands of papercutters in the UK and the trend is spreading daily. Many of them are going on to sell their wares and bloody good for them, I think it's marvellous. There are lots of papercutting groups you can join that give advice and hopefully you'll be told immediately if you're doing something wrong - or you'll read this, and it'll change you for the better. It took me a good long while, trial and error, being shouted at and talking with my very small group of about 5 papercutters before I got it right. Hopefully you'll get it right from the get-go and will never have to feel the way that I did when I recieved the email from the lady that changed the way I worked forever.
(Thank you to the Hummingbird Card Company).


  1. Great advice, I am just beginning to sell the cards I make and there are so many ideas swirling around my head that I don't know what is mine and what isn't! I think I will have to slow down, stop racing ahead, start designing my own stuff and not using others ideas as "inspiration". Thanks for this reality check PP xx

  2. hopefully the 'copycats' out in the world will learn from the kind advice of another and not the hard way. Sadly it is not only the little companies that copy some of the big guys on the High Street think it's OK to copy a design (from a small as yet unknown designer) have it mass produced and sell it on the High Street; unfortunately the small businesses often cannot afford to fight their corner against the big guys, some have been able to use social media to make some head way in their fights but many just have to let it go :(

  3. Your journey has had it's up and downs, but in the end you have come out on top. Talented and original. It's very easy to copy but it's also very wrong. Some people know and ignore and continue to use others work. Pinterest is a nightmare for copyright violations.
    I love to see your work, it don't handle a knife well but appreciate the time, skill and love you put into your work . Thanks for sharing.

  4. I really enjoyed this post, thank you so much for saving me from going through the same growing pains. I really do think you have a gift and hope that your designs and FB numbers grow along with your bank account!

  5. Your work always amazes me. Excellent.

  6. This is a great post and really very useful indeed. I also am in the throes of trying to work out copyrights etc and like you realised that i had breached it and had to bin stuff. Thank you for this well timed post and i will certainly get that book!

  7. Very useful info,thank you Mrs.Panda :)

  8. I make handmade cards and this post was useful,thank you Mrs.Panda :)

  9. Thank you for being so brave and for telling your story. I know so many people (myself included-I hold my hands up) who've done exactly what you did....taken a design, changed it slightly, hoped no-one would know. And this is designers/photographers themselves who'd be horrified if it happened to them. But eventually you'll get caught and when you do it can hit big time. You were lucky ad had someone understanding but there are so many sellers using trademarked images from big name brands (all over etsy) that when THEY get hit-it will hurt. Hello Kitty is a prime example of a big time "hitter".
    And anyway as designers ourselves we SHOULD be looking out for each other and protecting our own UNIQUE designs and not copying others!
    So thank you again for getting the message out there that its not ok!

  10. Such an interesting post! Thank you.

  11. What great and honest advice, thanks Panda x

  12. Well done Paper Panda for being so honest about your creative journey. I'm glad to hear it's not just me who gets 'spooked'. I think I'll get myself a copy of that book and stick it by my loo :)

  13. It's great advice but I'm still confused. So you can't use song lyrics? Not even christmas carols like most Christmas cards do?

  14. Good post!
    "There is nothing new under the sun" and we are all influenced, even subconsciously, by what we see. However, you are right and we all need to understand what we can copy and what we can't. As a Decorative Painter, I get asked all the time to paint Disney characters on children's walls. People get so angry that I won't do it but Disney is one of the worst for prosecuting people who copy their images.
    Check out the differences between Copyright Free and Royalty Free as well.

  15. Hi paperpanda
    Thanks for the advice! I hope this is not too cheeky- could you point me in the direction of easy to access fonts please. I understand this may not be appropriate. Ta though

    1. Hi, I don't let on which particular fonts I use, I'm afraid, but you can Google "free fonts" and it will come up with lots of pretty letter types for you x

  16. Great post Louise. Brave of you to "come clean", but it was all understandable error (even if you "should have known" beforehand). Well done for taking the time to find out about copyright and for having the character to stand up and deal with the issue.

    Having seen the effects of copying on several individual designer-makers, I have this issue very much in my mind when I am working. Bookbinding is, in general, one of those crafts where there are lots of designs that "everyone uses"... but still, there are instances where someone takes a lot of time and effort to make their own design - then somebody else copies it.

    I also remember an issue a few years back, where a fairly new Etsy seller actually reported a long-established seller to Etsy, for "copying" her book fastening method... which was a regular, well-known way to make a fastening and was also something the other seller had been doing for years. So, it does show that you also need to look around you and think hard, before you assume you are the "first" to "invent" something.

    The safest way is surely to get out your own pencil and sketchbook... so long as you are careful that you're not just copying someone's idea in a different way!

    Minefield! You are brave to deal with it and deserve your success!

  17. wow! yet another inspiring post! thank you.... I will now be purchasing that book and re-looking at the fonts I've bought or got for free - gulp! thank you for sharing and helping others. xx

  18. wow! yet another inspiring post! thank you.... I will now be purchasing that book and re-looking at the fonts I've bought or got for free - gulp! thank you for sharing and helping others. xx

  19. As an established card maker I always adhere to the 'angel' policy that most papercraft companies have here in the UK. It IS wrong to just take someone else's design and pass it off as yours or profit from it. I have an idea for card making now but need to learn new techniques using wax, paper cutting (that's you!) and natural fibres. Sounds weird but when it all comes together I expect it to be unique enough to maybe sell more than I normally would. Either way, you need to expand your techniques, but never at someone else's expense. I hope to learn from you and in return show you what I can do prior to doing anything commercial in case it infringes upon your area of expertise. I love your work though, masterpieces all of them. I only hope I can reach that standard.

  20. Oh my God, thank you for this bit of information! I was thinking of doing Chinese/japanese good luck symbols and other things but I now know to do my research before even attempting cutting and selling! Thank you again PP! :-) x

  21. What an excellent post, Louise! As a original illustrator whose work is constantly being copied (and/or shared freely on Pinterest), there is NOTHING more heartening to me than someone who has traveled the road from infringer to copyright protector. Thanks for sharing your excellent story! I will be recommending this post :)

  22. So nice to see somebody who has done wrong admit to it and put such effort into finding out what is right. You are to be highly commended for being so honest and up-front about your mistakes and the path you took to put things right.

  23. Thank you for explaining this so openly and by example. Copyright protects artists and designers, but is little understood by many.
    Worth mentioning too that once you begin selling, you are in fact self-employed and need to register with the tax office, and file a tax return every year to declare your income. Selling on social media or website, or at craft fares is a business.

  24. How does copyright effect those artists who create bespoke papercuts for people based on their interests and include things such as football badges etc?

    1. Hi Aimee,

      Generally when selling anything with a logo or brand you need to obtain permission from whomever it belongs to.

      For example; If you wanted Chelsea Football Club's logo in a papercut you'd have to email and request permission to use it, and explain what it's for, how many times you will use it etc. Generally they're pretty good and would allow for one offs etc, but not always. Always ask.

      If you are creating fan art, for your own wall and not selling a one off use would probably be just fine. I would check for peace of mind though.

      Hope this helps!