Ip Alert: BBC Threatens Dr. Who Knitters

Lynne Kiesling

Is this a misguided attempt to protect intellectual property? TechDirt reports that the BBC is threatening knitters that are knitting Dr. Who characters with legal action See also the Boing Boing post on the same story, not only for Cory’s discussion, but also for the awesome picture of the knitted Ood!

While I’m not a specialist in UK intellectual property law, there seem to be both legal and practical reasons why this action is misguided. Legally, doesn’t UK copyright law allow for fair use? Creating a knitting pattern is an original activity, and if the pattern refers to the copyright holder of the original character, doesn’t that constitute fair use? And it’s not like he was selling the patterns, so he was not profiting from the intellectual property developed by others. So where’s the legal standing?

Second, isn’t it impractical and counter-productive to alienate (pun intended!) your fan base? Seriously. There are three Dr. Who groups on Ravelry, with over 2,000 members worldwide. I think that’s a big enough group that I wouldn’t want to reduce their incentives to buy my stuff.

Is the BBC really trying to follow the lead of RIAA and piss off their customer base? I basically agree with TechDirt’s observation:

It’s nearly impossible to see how a fan getting people to knit versions of Dr. Who characters somehow diminishes the rights of the BBC. All it’s doing is enabling fans (who are also into knitting) to express their fandom. If anything, the BBC should be encouraging this kind of fan support, rather than trying to stifle it and shut it down. It’s stunning that after all these years, people still don’t realize that helping fans express their feelings towards something is a good thing, rather than infringement.

The Open Rights Group, which also commented on this action, made a very trenchant observation:

The approach the BBC have taken with Mazz’s knitting patterns demonstrate a distinct lack of flexibility. It is quite possible that through transforming the characters in Doctor Who into knitting patterns, Mazz may have infringed upon the BBC’s copyright. But it’s hard to see how Mazz’s non-commercial knitting patterns actually damage the commercial interests of the BBC.

The situation also touches on the growing need for UK copyright law to allow transformative use of works. In 2006, the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property asked the UK Intellectual Property Office to propose amendments to the European Copyright Directive that allowed for creative, transformative or derivative works.