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Copyright in Crease Patterns

Segal Frazier ( asks what is the copyright law relating to crease patterns.

This is an interesting question, and I'm tempted to come out of my whelk shell to consider it, although I can't promise to give an authoritative answer.

If a crease pattern is printed in a copyrighted book then there is no doubt abut it. Copying that crease pattern would be a breach of copyright, and probably even if it was redrawn by the person copying it.

So far as the crease pattern exists as an idea, then it isn't capable of being copyrighted, at any rate in the United States but probably in other countries. It is considered to be an invention and in the law of the United States it cannot be protected by copyright, but must be protected if at all by obtaining the grant of a patent. Whether this applies to other countries, I'm not so sure, but I have recently downloaded from the Web the relevant parts of the United States Copyright Act 1976 (as amended) and section 102 (b) reads as follows:

"In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embodied in such work".

For many years the legal advisers to the Origami Center, the Friends and now Origami USA have advised that no copyright can exist in the actual design of an origami model, although it can exist in the published diagrams as such. In the light of section 102 b. I have to agree with them and regret that my attention was not drawn to this provision before.

However, reading section 102 b, it appears to me that when applied in some fields, it has fuzzy edges. There has for long been a debate about the differences between discovery, invention and creation. If you discover and interesting pattern, is this a "concept, principle or discovery" or is an act of artistic creativity? Where does the discovery of a pattern end and the creation of a work of art begin? However, the wording of section 102 b doesn't leave much room for such theoretical musings.

It seems me that (except for the simplest crease patterns) a crease pattern (as for instance the crease pattern of a Lang shellfish) is on the margin of any such philosophical debate. It would probably depend on publication and what is meant by publication, but If you are shown the crease pattern of an unfolded model, is this covered by Section 102 (b) or is it still a sculptural work, which is subject to copyright. A sculptural model, as such is subject to the law of copyright. My own feeling, in the light of section 102 (b) is that the unfolded crease pattern does not have copyright protection. It remains a concept or principle. There is room for endless potential argument here, so I'll leave everyone to chew it over for themselves!

Whether the same thing applies in other legal jurisdictions, I do not know. I can't see that the British Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988 contains any specific provision similar to the American section 102 (b), but this does not mean that the same principle is not implicit in the legislation or that it has not been pronounced in case law.

To get back to crease patterns. If you photocopy the crease pattern in someone's book then you are in breach of copyright in any country subscribing to the Berne Copyright Convention. If you fold a crease pattern by following the design in a book then you are not in breach of copyright. If you work out a crease pattern from someone else's model you are not in breach of copyright, even if you reproduce it and sell it, unless it is the subject of a patent as an invention.

I'm sorry to confuse everyone. As I have said before, Copyright Law is NOT an easy subject when it is applied to origami, for which it was never intend

David Lister.

Grimsby, England.

Fri 22 Mar 2002

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