Hey doesn’t that look a lot like…

So this popped up on Instagram last night. 

I’m sure you recognise the Baa-ble Hat, designed by Donna Smith for last year’s Shetland Wool Week. Everyone was making them, even here in Zurich, and apparently over across the pond too. Smith has told blog readers she is working on a matching cowl pattern… but no, that cowl beneath it is not hers. (ETA: Smith’s cowl and mitts pattern is now available!)

The “I’ll Pack a Cowl for Rhinebeck” pattern was created for a New Jersey yarn store’s Rhinebeck trip, and has been published for free on Ravelry. It’s explicitly inspired by Baa-ble and worked at the same gauge, but includes an alpaca as well as the sheepies. Cute! There are also an extra two layers of dots at the bottom, and presumably the dots in the sky had to be plotted anew since there are no crown decreases. It no longer appears on the store’s Instagram account, following a slew of negative comments. Comments are still continuing on the Ravelry page. 

I actually have some sympathy for the situation. “Originality” is a tricky thing. (Which is why I’m writing, by the way. I have no interest in attacking this designer, but I think it’s worth hashing out what’s going wrong here, especially in retrospect. Consider it a case study.) There are a lot of instances of people separately coming up with similar ideas, and even more instances of reverse engineering a cool thing you saw somewhere. That said, this is not that. The cowl pattern directly follows the hat. It’s not just “inspired by” it, it uses the actual chart (with some modifications).

So this is the designer’s argument:

I did consult with a few designers once interest was generated for me to publish the pattern. I did put a lot of work into the design and placement and feel it was enough of my own work to warrant publication. I never intended to make money off the pattern. 
There has been a pattern published almost a year ago on Ravelry that is a blatant copy of Donna’s design right down to the actual chart of decreases. There are also patterns that were published prior to the baa-ble hat that incorporate the same charted sheep.

Please be aware that I have been in correspondence with Donna prior and since publication in an attempt to clarify similarities and differences. Within hours of publication I did offer to link to the hat. 

I am extremely distressed by the negative comments but stand by my belief that this is my design inspired by the hat and credit given to that fact.

What immediately strikes me as odd is that she “consulted with a few designers” rather than consulting with the actual designer. “Being in correspondence” with her is not the same as asking permission, just as “offering to link” is not the same as actually linking. Which she does not do. The pattern and pattern page mention the Baa-ble hat but not the designer’s name – and no link. 

Second mistake: It seems she’s following the common myth that there’s a certain number of changes to a design that constitute “originality” in copyright. (Copyright law for knitting design is super complicated and varies between countries. I’m not going to try to address the legalities, but in no legal system that I am aware of is does this “three changes makes it yours” rule exist.) 

Third mistake: she thinks that offering the pattern for free makes it okay. Legally that has nothing to do with it, and practically, it’s actually worse. This puts her free pattern in direct competition with Smith’s paid pattern. I’m sure she didn’t know Smith was working on her own cowl (that blog post appeared only two days ago), but a lot of people might buy the hat pattern just for the chart. Plenty of people have already knit cowls based on the hat chart. It’s not a great leap. And while free, the pattern was produced for and promotes the yarn store. 

Aside: I can’t find this previous pattern she claims to be a blatant copy of Baa-ble, but maybe I’m just not looking that hard. It’s true that there are other patterns preceding Baa-ble using a very similar sheep chart. The dots however originated with Smith’s design, making this cowl instantly recognisable as a direct copy. 

The biggest mistake? Digging her heels in. This is her first pattern and it’s drawn attention in exactly the wrong way. As I say, there’s a lot of muddy ground when it comes to what makes for an original, publishable design. I can see why she felt justified in releasing it. But when people start telling you, en masse, that you’ve screwed up: you should consider whether they’re right. Rule for life. (This is why I like the disagree button on Ravelry! One or two disagrees mean nothing, but if you get a lot? Check yourself.) And there’s the simple issue of reputation management. If she has any aspirations to design in future, she should care about what this is doing to her name. 

There’s a simple fix. Take the pattern out of her Ravelry store, stop distributing it in the yarn shop, and link the pattern page to the Baa-ble hat. She doesn’t even have to apologise if she truly thinks there’s nothing to apologise for, though “I’m sorry, I made a mistake” is always a good step. Her store still has the cowl for their Rhinebeck trip. And hey, if nobody was making a penny on it, then nothing lost by ceasing to distribute it, right? At this point, the longer she leaves it up, the greater the damage. It’s a shame. And it’s completely unnecessary.

Hey, if you do want an adorable Baa-ble cowl pattern (and mittens!) from Donna Smith herself, looks like you won’t have long to wait…

2 thoughts on “Hey doesn’t that look a lot like…

  1. Tricky situation…. though the designer can argue that she wrote her own pattern and made changes to the design, it’s just too close for comfort. Yes the sheep motif has been round for donkey’s years, but the colours and the gauge and the snowflakes all make it uncanny. It’s so clearly ripping off Donna’s hat (and upcoming cowl) and then offering it up for free. It’s really not a good way to win friends and influence people (and I’m finding that really good things come of having a wide circle of knitting friends), and she’s pissed off a good few influential people in the knitting world.

    1. By her own admission this was directly intended as a cowl version of the Baa-ble hat. And that’s the problem.
      Yes to everything you say about the value of knitting friends, and being careful how you deal with people in this tight-knit community!

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