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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.

August 01, 2000|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 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.

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