Is a Stitch Online a Crime?

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 techniques.

"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 crocheting.

"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 else."

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 sew.

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 Warner.

"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 industry."

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 ringleaders.

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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For related stories on intellectual property and the Internet, go to http://www.latimes.com/musicweb.

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