Copyright considerations for Etsy sellers

You know those incredible trinket-filled 'junk' shops you find down backstreets when you're on holiday? The ones with shelves, boxes and rails full of one-of-a-kind items you've never seen before. Well, Etsy is the internet's equivalent.
The site claims to have 1.6 million active sellers, each of whom offers a unique range of "vintage" and "handcrafted" goods to an audience of 24 million buyers around the world. Impressive stuff. Etsy's love for all things homemade presents a particular challenge, though - it's a hotbed of copyright infringement, or at least the uncertainty that surrounds it.

Copyright and intellectual property explained

Before we go into copyright, it's best that we start with the umbrella term under which it falls: 'intellectual property'.
This generally covers all creations of the mind - i.e. inventions, artistic works, designs, text, names, images and symbols. In Etsy terms, an original painting or vintage jacket might be considered tangible property, but other aspects of it - like the images used in the advert, the written descriptions and tags, your shop's name and branding - qualify as intellectual property; they've been thought up by someone.
Copyright, then, is a form of intellectual property that gives the owner exclusive rights to make copies of original creative works. More specifically, its purpose is to stop anyone reproducing, distributing or displaying works, and thus profiting from them.

A unique problem to overcome

The big retailers and ecommerce sites out there - Amazon, ASOS and John Lewis being prime examples - have it pretty easy. They sell proven goods made by established companies or, in some cases, themselves. The legal aspects of what can and can't be made and sold are considered much earlier in the supply chain, with specific standards to meet.
On Etsy, however, the lines are blurred.
You have enough users to populate Malta three times over, and many are creating items based on their favourite TV shows, music artists and literary characters. Chances are, some of them will be using ideas and other intellectual property that isn't theirs. So whose responsibility is it?
Store owners might say Etsy, but the buck is prone to being passed. With regular stories of items and even whole accounts being removed from the site, though, you'll definitely want to be careful.

Unlawful copying or simple inspiration?

This is where the lines are at their blurriest. You'll notice many of the product titles used on Etsy these days feature the word 'inspired'. You have "Harry Potter-inspired" mugs, and "Adventure Time-inspired" T-shirts. While many sellers are clearly getting away with this for now, putting one word into your post isn't necessarily a free ticket to just use any image you want.
It's important to remember that inspiration to some could be copying to others, and some franchise bosses are a little more vigilant than others. Etsy might be full of Adventure Time stuff, but there isn't so much in the way of Twilight paraphernalia. This is largely because the studio that owns the teen-vampire mega-series is particularly hot on filing complaints.
The same rules apply for clothing and accessories too - if it looks obvious that you've copied a Gucci handbag, and have then labelled the item "Gucci-inspired", the bigwigs at Gucci are within their rights to complain.

Copyright works for you too

Copyright isn't just something that concerns big Hollywood franchises and fashion mega-brands - it also protects the work of Etsy's own crafters. If you make a wonderful oil painting and put it up for sale, copyright protection means that another user can't create a copy and make money from it. The same goes for handmade jewellery, sculptures and anything else homemade - you're protected for all of it.
Of course, this means you can't go and copy other people's work either, but we know you weren't considering that anyway!

Copyright is what makes Etsy special

There's no debating that the intellectual property and copyright laws affecting Etsy users are confusing - the company itself readily admits this in its own help guides. As a rule of thumb, though, be careful with what you post, and try adhere to the following:
- Don't knowingly steal other users' ideas
- Don't use brand names on vintage items unless you are 100 per cent sure
- Obtain permission before using other people's photos (otherwise take your own)
- Be inspired, but don't use the word itself as a 'get out of jail free' card
- Don't underestimate major commercial brands and franchises!
It might be a major ecommerce platform with millions of users and global reach, but Etsy can't be grouped with Amazon and eBay. The site is unique, and that's down to its focus on originality. Every store offers something different, and that's what makes it worth browsing. Without copyright rules, this wouldn't be possible.

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