NOTE TO READERS: Since I first wrote this post, I have found new information that copyright does not apply to patterns. This makes total since when you think about it. However, I still feel that if you want to be a jewelry artist and not just a jewelry maker you should work on creating original designs. You will feel better about yourself if you do!
Copyright. ©. Lawsuits. Courts. Fines. Public humiliation and spiritual distruction.
Copyright is the simple concept that if you created something, it is yours and no one else has the right to copy it without permission.
Let's examine that. First you have to create some 'thing'. An actual tangible thing. A painting, a recording, a printed text, a photograph, a bracelet... something. And it has to be something that you created, that didn't exist before, something unique. Not easy.
Your reward for creating this thing, whatever it is, is that no one else can copy it or profit from it but you. Except when they can through Fair Use (more on that later) or when you give them those rights.
So, you created a thing and it is yours and no one else can copy it unless you say so. MINE!
So, that seems simple, right? Until you start asking questions.
1) How do I know what I created is unique?
2) How do I prove I created it first?
3) How do I keep other people from copying it anyway?
4) What do I do if someone says I copied their item?
5) I made it/own it, I should have the right to sell it!
Ok, that last one wasn't a question, but still a valid point.
1) How do I know what I created is unique? - You don't. You might be able to reasonably assume it based on the fact that you have never seen anything like it before, but unless you have seen everything... well, you just don't know for sure. I suggest research to see what else is out there.
2) How do I prove I created it first? - The easiest way is by publishing it. This is basically publicly declaring that you have created something. Publishing comes in many forms these days from the traditional books and magazines to gallery showings or performances, to blog or flickr postings. Basically, any thing that allows you to shout forth to the masses ,"I MADE A THING!".
Alternately, you can fill out a form and give the goverment some money and they will make a note that you made it. Whichever.
3)How do I keep other people from copying it anyway? - You don't. You can discourage copying by including copyright statements or symbols on your blog, book, or flier. You can enforce your copyright by bringing legal action against those you find who did copy. You cannot prevent infringement.
Just a note: if you never put your thing out there in the public view but you run across another just like it, it's probably not a copy. It may even turn out that yours is the copy and you just didn't realize it.
4) What do I do if someone says I copied their item? - Well, did you? Sometimes, our minds work in weird ways and will dredge back up things we saw long ago with no context so that we think they are original ideas... but they aren't. If that happens, apologize. Remove the offending item from public view. Try to do better next time.
If, however, you deliberately copied something thinking you would never be caught and that you could make money off of someone else's creativity - go hire a lawyer cause you are probably getting sued.
If you think it was actually your idea first, say so, show your proof, stand up for yourself. Hire lawyers as needs dictate.
If none of these apply, you may have had a parallel evolution of an idea - this is where two or more people come up with the same thing independantly. In that situation, try to work with the other person to see what, if anything, can be worked out.
5) I made it/own it, I should have the right to sell it! - Yes, you have the right to sell things you have made, or things that you own. You do not have the right to make for the purpose of sale things for which you do not own the copyright. So, if you made one for yourself two years ago, but now want to get rid of it, that is ok. If you made five just so you could sell them, that is not ok. And if you are selling that one off item you no longer want, go ahead and credit the designer - it's just polite.
Additional things to think about:
Fair Use - the copyright laws allow for fair use of a copyrighted item for things such as education and satire. It is highly unlikely that either of these will apply to jewelry makeing - well, unless you are entering the Ugly Necklace Contest - that would count as satire. Oh, you thought education meant you could teach someone else's design? No, it means you can use someone else's design to illustrate something else you are teaching - such as use of color, or shape. You can't actually just teach the design itself.
Derivative works - the copyright laws state that when you own the copyright on a thing, you own the right to make derivative works. This is things that are based on the first thing. In jewelry, this would be making the same bracelet in a different color or with a different focal. The basic rule is that if you can tell it was based on something else, it is derivative.
Components - some people think that while you can't use the whole of a work it is ok to use components from the work. It's not. Copyright protects a work in whole and in part. So, if that bracelet you see in the magazine has a really cool and unique beaded clasp, it is not ok to use just the clasp on some other bracelet of your design. Turns out Cinderella's stepsisters were right, it's not ok to take pieces from others even if they look good in your new whole.
You may now be thinking that you should never again look at any designs by anyone else, just so you can never possibly be accused of infringing. That is certainly one path. The other path is to look at other's work with an eye to inspiratation rather than instruction. Don't look at a piece in a magazine to tell what a bracelet will look like, look at the piece to tell you how a bracelet can feel. Do you like the bracelets that are loose and drapey, or the ones that fit closer to the wrist? Do you like the dark color combinations, or the lights, or a mix? Do you like the chunky look or the elegant? Take these thoughts and create something of your own with a similiar feel to that magazine piece, but that is unique to you. It will make you an artist.
Quote: Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.
Frank Zappa (1940 - 1993)