Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coloring books and copyright

Dear Rich: I have a question. I live in France and I have toy patterns from 35-year-old South African magazines. Am I allowed to now use these patterns to make my own version of these toys? Also, I have tracings taken from 35-year-old coloring books that I would like to make in felt, then mount into picture frames. Am I allowed to do this? I'm so glad you asked. The short answers to both of your questions are, "Maybe." In either case, the risk of getting hassled seems slim.

Although this blog only provides answers regarding U.S. law, the Dear Rich staff can tell you that South Africa and France are both members of an international copyright treaty that provides reciprocality between member countries (meaning that the works of a foreign national in one nation will be protected in another) and that works are protected for a minimum copyright term of the life of the author, plus fifty years. So the content of the magazines is likely still protected and the South African owner could sue you in France.
However, some issues are not absolutely clear, such as: (1) Are the toy patterns protectible under copyright or are they considered unprotectable "useful articles"? (2) Do three-dimensional toys based on those patterns infringe the patterns? (3) Does the magazine's copyright necessarily protect the pattern or resulting toy? The more useful question for you is whether the owner of the pattern will ever learn of your use or care enough to investigate rights. Usually, it's not worth suing over such things unless the alleged infringer has made enough money to make a lawsuit worthwhile.
The framed felt coloring book montages create more complex copryight issues. The drawings in the coloring books are protectible and your resulting creation is probably a derivative work in which you each claim rights -- that is, both parties own rights to their separate contributions. Again, this is an academic analysis and the bigger question is really whether the owner of a 35-year-old South African copyright will learn about and pursue someone in France over allegedly copied toys and coloring books. Although we can't be sure, the Dear Rich staff is betting that's not likely to happen.