Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is origami protected by copyright?

Dear Rich: I'm frustrated after multiple attempts to reach (Fumiaki Shingu) for permission to use his copyrighted origami folding methods for greeting cards. The U.S. publisher of some of his diagrams won't give me his contact info, the Japanese phone number on his website doesn't work, his email on website doesn't work, and I get no reply to my snail mail inquiry. I even have friends in Japan trying to locate him for me. Is there a point where I can just go ahead and use the folding methods without injuring my reputation or pocketbook. His website is www.en.origami-club.com. The initial question when you want to use someone else's work is whether it is protected by intellectual property laws. So we should start by asking whether origami designs and origami instructions can be protected. According to supporters of origami, the answer is yes. We tend to agree. The U.S. grants design patents to origami works, and considering the amazing creative work that is expressed in much origami, we believe that such works merit copyright protection. We also believe that instructions for creating such works may be copyrightable depending on the extent of original expression.  And finally, compilations of origami works may be protected to the extent of the author's choice and selection of material. Traditional origami is most likely in the public domain.
Getting permission. If you are using protected works as the basis of your cards, you should obtain permission. In 2008, the First International Origami Copyright Meeting (Tokyo) proposed the creation of a clearinghouse for origami artists so that people like you could obtain permission from artists. You might want to contact the participants at that meeting to see if such a clearinghouse was created. If that's not possible, you may wish to check out artist Robert Lang's origami resources page. As for your question about proceeding without permission, our standard answer would apply: if the works are protected and the owner learns about your use, you may have to face the consequences of a cease and desist letter (or worse, a lawsuit). The odds of that happening are affected by the popularity of your work and the tenacity with which the owner pursues infringers.