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Hobby industry looks to sew up thieves' loose ends online

Fed up with pirates who download and distribute intellectual property ranging from needlepoint patterns to stencil designs, the crafts industry is fighting back.

    A stitch in time saves nine online--or so the arts and crafts industry hopes.

    Fed up with pirates who download and distribute intellectual property ranging from needlepoint patterns to stencil designs, the Hobby Industry Association (HIA) is marshalling more than 4,000 member companies to combat copyright theft on the Internet.

    The international trade group hopes to create an education campaign to inform would-be pirates that they're robbing crafts designers of their livelihood. Organizers are trying to determine a set of standard warnings that will appear on crafts-related Web sites, such as, "Unlimited electronic distribution of this pattern means the artist receives no payment for his or her work."

    If the education campaign doesn't stem the theft of intellectual property, the Elmwood Park, N.J.-based HIA is preparing to sue chronic copyright offenders. HIA leaders, who began developing their plan Jan. 28 at the 60th annual conference in Anaheim, Calif., will convene in June to draft the educational statements and consider legal strategies.

    "The damage is really being done to small designers whose livelihood is being cut off because now they're unable to sell something if half the world knows that it's available for free on a Web site," said Susan Brandt, HIA assistant executive director. "While we know there are people out there who know exactly what they're doing and will use other patterns no matter what, there's a large segment of people who don't really know they're not allowed to use it. Their first excuse will be, 'I didn't know,' and therefore we have to show that we're making some kind of effort to educate people."

    The HIA initiative underscores an increasingly raucous intellectual property debate that pits the mushrooming ranks of free downloaders against artists, writers, musicians and others who would prefer that fans pay a fee for electronic files. Although the recording industry's effort to shut down popular music-swapping site Napster has dominated the media, similar battles are being fought in grassroots industries ranging from floral arranging to clipper-ship-in-bottle building.

    In fact, needlepoint designers say, smaller-scale artists have far more at stake than famous musicians, many of whom can continue to make money on their concert tours and other promotions. For many people in the folksy craft industry, designing and selling patterns is a crucial way to make ends meet--and all they have is their unique set of patterns and instruction manuals.

    Sales at Pegasus Originals, a needlepoint design shop in Lexington, S.C., have dropped as much as $200,000 a year, or 40 percent, since 1997, in large part because of free digital distribution, said Pegasus President Jim Hedgepath.

    "We've gotten accused of being rich and making all this money, and it's just not the case," Hedgepath said as his 2-month-old grandson cooed in the background of his office.

    Sewing up the damage
    Hedgepath is not only fighting the theft of needlepoint patterns of rare dog breeds that his wife and other family members create. He is also fighting a public relations battle against those who try to paint his company as an aggressive prosecutor of little old ladies gingerly crafting doilies in rocking chairs, unwittingly trading files that their grandsons scanned into the computer.

    Hedgepath's research shows that the most brazen stitch stealers are leaders of underground rings of copyright violators in Europe, Russia and Korea. Many are professional, industry-agnostic pilferers who couldn't discern a basketweave from a counted cross-stitch. They often print out the patterns, package and sell them at discounts in physical stores, or they post the patterns online on their advertising-supported sites.

    Others belong to sophisticated, underground stitching clubs that require a password and initiation but then give the consumer access to hundreds or thousands of free patterns leaked by other members. The trade group Home Sewing Industry, which recently received the names and addresses of 40 pattern purloiners from Yahoo, concluded that offenders ranged from hard-core pirates to cyber-savvy octogenarians.

    "Sharing is a nice word, but that's not what's happening here. It's stealing," Hedgepath lamented. "What a lot of people do is they'll buy one of the charts we sell in the stores, scan it, turn it into a JPEG file and put it up on Club Photo or Yahoo Photo...Suddenly 500 people have the chart we're trying to sell, and they've got it for free."

    Hedgepath and others said that they have filed numerous complaints with Yahoo, GeoCities and other sites that allow people to create their own Web sites. In nearly every case, the host required the copyright violator to stop operations, sometimes canceling the account. But the bandit often reregisters the site under a new name or goes to a new host, and the same copyrighted material surfaces within 24 hours to begin a new round of downloading.

    "The real problems are the smaller people who frankly don't give a damn," an exasperated Brandt said. "You know those games where the groundhog pops up, and you hammer it down and then another pops up, and you try to hammer that down, over and over? That's how this is--you hammer one down, and immediately a new one comes up. These people feel a sense of righteousness; they feel justified, and they won't stop."

    Alan Weintraub, a research director at Gartner specializing in intellectual property, said that courts are increasingly sympathetic to prosecutors when it comes to online copyright violations. But that hasn't stemmed the widespread belief that everything on the Internet is free--a cultural relic that the HIA and other groups will be hard-pressed to reverse in the near future.

    "These people think the Internet is a toy, and they don't value what the content is," Weintraub said of the larcenists. "To that extent, if you have anything online that you can download, then it can and probably will be compromised."