LATIMES: Is a Stitch Online a crime?

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From: Karee Swift (
Date: Wed Aug 02 2000 - 14:11:39 PDT

This definitely puts the Napster debate in a humorous perspective... -

Is a Stitch Online a Crime?
 Pattern publishers say many needlepoint fans, Napster-like, are
cheating them by swapping designs on the Internet for free. But
members of the sewing set say it's just friendly sharing.

By P.J. HUFFSTUTTER, Times Staff Writer

     If the $40-billion global music business thought it had problems
with the emergence of a revolutionary Internet tool called Napster,
consider the now-terrified needlepoint industry.
     For years, grandmotherly hobbyists, hungry for doily-and-swan
patterns, have forked over $6 and $7 for them. Without a peep of
complaint, they have provided a steady stream of revenue to pattern
publishers such as Cross My Heart and Pegasus Originals.
     In a good year, Pegasus can pull in about $500,000 from selling
the copyrighted patterns to its aging customers.
     No more. Taking a cue from music-bootlegging teenagers, sewing
enthusiasts have discovered that they too can steal copyrighted
material over the Internet, thanks to anonymous file-sharing
     "I'm only sharing [the patterns] with my friends, and their
friends," said Carla Conry, a mother of six who runs
PatternPiggiesUnite!, a 350-person underground Net community of
stitchers who swap the patterns. "Why shouldn't friends help each
other out and save a little bit of money?"
     What is neighborly fun for Conry is outright theft to
needlepoint companies and the artists who create the patterns.
     Sales at the South Carolina design shop Pegasus have dropped as
much as $200,000 a year--or 40%--since 1997, in part because of such
swapping, said founder Jim Hedgepath. He and a handful of companies
and pattern designers are gathering evidence to wage a legal battle
against the homemakers.
     "They're housewives and they're hackers," Hedgepath said. "I
don't care if they have kids. I don't care that they are
grandmothers. They're bootlegging us out of business."
     Like the record industry, the sewing world has been unable to
come up with any practical alternative to innovative file-swapping
communities that proliferate online. Some of the same entertainment
conglomerates whose music divisions are fighting Napster--such as
Time Warner--are also feeling the pinch from the pattern-swapping.
     Legal experts are just starting to wrestle with the implications
of new technologies that will permit the instant distribution of
information. Business people are trembling at the prospect that file-
swapping won't stop at music, videos and needlepoint.
     There are already rumblings that it has spread to knitting and
     "Where will it end?" wailed Marilyn Leavitt-Imblum, 54, who
designs needlepoint patterns. "I just don't understand how these
[people] can stitch a stolen angel and still live with themselves."
     The little-known debate highlights the legal clash over
copyrights in cyberspace, where many consumers now believe that all
information--whether it's architectural designs or an Aerosmith
record--should be freely shared. If you can digitize it, you can
steal it. And chances are someone has.
     "People don't see it as stealing," said Jonathan Gaw, an e-
commerce analyst who tracks Internet trends for the research firm
IDC. "Things will only change when publishers of all kinds make it
easier to buy and pay for it online than to get it for free somewhere
     What's remarkable about the stitching debate is how a group of
computer novices used basic technological tools to reproduce an
anonymous file-sharing system that, like Napster, draws its strength
from a community that shares a singular passion.

     Easy to Use, Easy to Copy
     It all started about a year ago, when a group of ladies--who
also happened to have PCs and digital scanners--decided to exchange
needlepoint designs.
     The paper patterns, each essentially a large grid filled with
thousands of tiny squares, are the how-to instructions for a
needlepoint practitioner. Like a paint-by-numbers canvas, the
needlepoint pattern tells you what to do: Each square carries an
instruction for what color thread to use and what type of stitch to
     Easy to use, the designs also are simple to copy. For years,
fans photocopied the patterns and sent them to each other. Not by the
dozens, mind you. Just one or two, tucked inside "with a recipe and a
note," said Carlene Davis, a 52-year-old grandmother who lives in
southwest Idaho. "Just being neighborly."
     After all, needlepoint designs are hard to come by, especially
for women like Davis who live in rural areas. A trip to the nearest
hobby shop can mean a three-hour drive.
     "There aren't very many stores that carry needlepoint patterns
anymore," Davis said. "What they have is usually tacky. Who wants to
[cross-stitch] a woman with a pineapple on her head and then frame
it? I don't want that hanging on my walls."
     To find alternatives, Davis went online and scoured various
Internet message boards devoted to arts and crafts. She stumbled onto
one board, called rec.crafts .textiles.needlework, and discovered
hundreds of other frustrated stitchers.
     Here was ground zero of a vast network of needlepoint designers
and, much to their chagrin, pirates hungry for freebies. Messages
directed board readers to Web sites and computer servers filled with
hundreds of pattern books--all saved in an electronic format.
     Digitizing a pattern is as simple as making a photocopy.
Hobbyists take the paper design and, using a computer scanner, make a
digital version of the original. Then, as with an MP3 file, a person
can download the electronic pattern to her PC from the Net.
     Hit the print button and out comes a needlepoint design that's
as perfect as any found in a craft book.
     "There have been entire instructions for a crochet afghan posted
on the Net. They didn't even bother to type up the information. They
just took the pages straight out [of a book] and scanned them," said
Sandra Case, executive director of publications for Leisure Arts, one
of the hobby industry's largest publishers. The parent company of
Leisure Arts, which is based in Little Rock, Ark., is owned by Time
     "It's outrageous," she said.
     Indeed, there are scores of easy-to-find pattern treasure
troves, thanks to pointers from the Internet message board. Many
posts list links to Web sites that hobbyists have built using free
homepage services like Xoom Inc. On one Xoom page, several dozen
patterns featuring Disney characters can be had for a very low price.
     "Each time you want to download a pattern, please click the
banner once!" the poster wrote. "I am sorry having to force you to
click it, but it seems that a lot of people just get the patterns,
not thinking about the running costs of this site."
     But after clicking on the ads, the site failed to produce the
promised patterns. Angry octogenarians railed against the site's
owner in rec.crafts.textiles.needlework, clucking over the deception.
The nerve of that stitcher!
     "This is exactly the reason why I started PatternPiggies," Conry
said. "You don't know who you can trust."
     PatternPiggies is a digital clubhouse on eGroups, a free Web-
based service that lets people create e-mail groups and electronic
bulletin boards for sharing digital files. Conry launched the group
late last year, and quickly attracted hundreds of women who jumped at
the chance to download dozens of bootlegged patterns for free.
     Needlepoint designers learned about such file-sharing clubs and
began posting pleas to online newsgroups for people to stop the
practice. The patterns were copyrighted works, the designers noted.
When a stitcher buys a pattern, she's buying the right to use it--not
to allow several hundred other people to use it for free.
     Vicious debates over pattern-sharing exploded on the Net, and
continue to rage. Interestingly, the hobbyists who swap patterns take
the same ethical stance as music-loving teenagers who have used
programs like Napster to exchange copyrighted tunes.
     "I'm promoting the designers," said Shawna Dooley, a 25-year-old
housewife from Alberta, Canada. "We're just sampling the patterns. If
you like one pattern, you're going to be more likely to go out and
buy a pattern by that artist next time. . . . I really think this
whole debate has gotten totally blown out of proportion."
     Besides, paying $6 for an entire pattern book is outrageous,
said Carole Nutter, particularly if a person wants just one or two of
the dozen designs listed. Especially if a stitcher, like Nutter, is
so strapped that she had to sell some of her precious books on EBay
last Christmas to pay for gifts.
     "It's like the CD. There's one song you want, but you still have
to buy the whole thing," said Nutter, 54, who lives in Bellgrave,
Mont., a town of 3,000. "Why can't [the industry] let us pay for what
we want, not what they want to sell us?"
     The needlepoint industry, however, has refused to take the
situation lying down.
     Shop owners fear that the practice will put designers--who can
make as little as 10 cents per pattern sold--out of business. Some
needlepoint designers make a healthy salary off their art: Leavitt-
Imblum said she has grossed $8 million in sales over the past 14
years. But most designers must have a second job to make a living.
     "Without the designers, we can close our doors," said Sharon
Wainwright, president of the International Needleart Retailers Guild,
a leading trade association. "Everything in our industry, from thread
to needle to fabric sales, hinges on the designers. We need to deal
with this in order to maintain the health and integrity of our
     As in the music world, some publishers and artists are gathering
evidence to fire back with legal action. Attorneys at Time Warner's
Southern Progress Corp., the parent company of Leisure Arts, have
sent cease-and-desist letters to Internet service providers that host
Web sites laden with pirated designs.
     Hedgepath, of Pegasus Originals, is organizing artists and
pushing them to build a legal fund to go after the pattern-swappers.
And designer Leavitt-Imblum has ordered her attorney to start
collecting evidence so she can sue those who exchange copies of her
patterns, people whom she describes as the "scourge of all that is
decent and right."
     While her attorney acknowledges that his client's rights are
being violated, he has tried to cool her enthusiasm for taking the
pattern-swappers to court.
     "There is so much of this stuff happening, I could keep five
people busy at my firm devoted just to this," said John Carpenter, an
intellectual-property attorney with Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson
in Portland, Maine. "I told her that it's not a cost-effective way
for a small business to work."

     Suing Grandmothers Just Isn't Practical
     Indeed, outside this cottage business, the public outcry over
bootlegging Leavitt-Imblum's World Peace Angel has been nonexistent.
After all, suing a needle-happy homemaker makes even less sense than
filing a lawsuit against a teenager exchanging copies of the latest
Metallica record with millions of Internet users, lawyers say.
     "This is a homey industry," said Sabrina Simon, corporate
counsel for Southern Progress Corp. "What kind of [damages] could we
possibly get from a grandmother?"
     For now, the cross-stitch war must be waged on the grass-roots
level. In hopes of gathering evidence and quashing the problem,
publishers and designers say they are mobilizing small groups of
spies to infiltrate the pattern-swapping clubs and nail the
     Designers say they have recruited friends and fans, sometimes
offering free patterns in exchange for their snooping. Fellow artists
like Linn Skinner of Hollywood, a 57-year-old needlepoint designer,
spies on the clubs "for the greater good. I have friends who have
been hit badly by this."
     So, how many spies are there?
     "I can't tell you," said Leavitt-Imblum. "Do you know what would
happen to these women if I told you their names?"
     At worst, these cyberspace Mata Haris are exiled from the cross-
stitch underground. That happened on PatternPiggies, which recently
renamed the group OinkersDelight and yanked its listing off eGroups'
search engine. To find the club, you have to know someone who knows
someone, and can vouch for your worthiness. Getting in now requires a
password and a pledge of faith: New subscribers are encouraged to
post at least one cross-stitch pattern to the community.
     The club has two important rules, according to its home page.
First off, have fun. "The second thing is there will be NO TALK OF
COPYRIGHT," according to the posted rules. "We are a share group. [W]
e are not selling anything."
     As the clash continues, people on both sides of the pattern
debate say they are closely watching the Napster case unfold in San
Francisco. Their future, they say, is ultimately tied to the fate of
a technology start-up that has wrestled control over distribution
from major entertainment conglomerates.
     "I started watching the case because I have a 13-year-old who
got an MP3 player for his birthday," said Simon. "Now, I'm watching
it for the designers."

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