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Frequently Asked Questions - Copyright

Several years ago OrigamiUSA engaged a copyright lawyer with over 25 years of experience in intellectual property to look into the question of how copyright applies to origami. He wrote up a more extensive FAQ for us, which you can find on our main copyright policy page, here:

You can also download from there a copy of his analysis with footnotes and supporting reasoning.

OrigamiUSA would welcome additional investigation and/or opinions from any lawyer with substantial experience in copyright law who would be interested in some pro bono work for our non-profit organization. Please contact the copyright committee using the link on the page above.

If the figure is traditional (e.g., the crane), you can do pretty much anything you like with it!

If the figure is not traditional, then you need to secure permission from the composer of the figure.

Can I use an image of an origami figure commercially?

Only after securing permission from the composer of the figure (and if different, the photographer who took the image).

 If the figure is traditional, you don't need permission from the composer, but you still need permission from the photographer.

I found some diagrams for free on the web. Can I republish or redistribute them?

Not without permission from the original author, unless the author has specifically put them into the public domain.

I learned an origami figure from a published source. May I teach it to someone else?

Most copyright law contains certain exceptions, which in the U.S. come under the doctrine of “Fair Use.” Although the law is (intentionally) somewhat vague about the specific boundaries of “Fair Use,” teaching an origami figure to someone else informally is generally considered acceptable.

May I teach an origami figure to someone else for hire?

That would be considered commercial usage. If the figure is explicitly noted as a traditional figure, yes. Otherwise, permission must be obtained from the creator.

While there is some contention over the question of teaching a model at a convention, in general, a convention is a commercial activity (people are paying money to attend). OrigamiUSA’s policy for our conventions is that when someone is teaching someone else how to make copies of a creator’s work at an OrigamiUSA convention, permission from the creator must be obtained.

What if I “reverse-engineer” an origami design? Can I republish my own version?

No. a reproduction of a creative work is considered a derivative work no matter how it was derived and the original composer retains rights in the work.

What if I modify an origami design? Can I republish my own version?

No. A modification of a creative work is considered a derivative work and the original composer retains rights in the work.

I found some folding instructions in a book or on the web. May I use figures I folded myself from these instructions commercially?

If the figure is explicitly noted as a traditional figure, yes. If the figure was composed by an individual (who is usually credited in the book), you may fold it for personal use but commercial usage of the origami figure requires permission from the composer of the figure.

If some diagrams on the web are free, doesn't that mean that they're in the public domain?

No. An author can give his/her work away while still retaining control over other forms of distribution.

I have some diagrams. Can I make and distribute video folding instructions of them?

Not without permission of the author. Video instructions would still be considered a "derivative work" of the original.

I got some diagrams from a web source and the person I got them from says they have resale rights. Now can I redistribute them?

You should demand to see written permission from the original authors. The vast majority of diagrams from web sources (e.g., eBay) that are claimed to have resale rights, don’t.

I composed my own origami design and then subsequently found a published model that’s very similar. Can I publish my design?

There are several documented examples of simultaneous composition in origami, particularly among figures of a highly geometrical nature. (This situation is analogous to two musical composers independently composing the same melody; it’s rare, but does happen.) If the figures were composed independently, each composer has the right to assign rights to his/her own design.

Can I consider these questions and answers to be legal advice?

No. You may find them useful for understanding general issues, but for any specific legal question you should contact your own lawyer familiar with the relevant laws in your area. In particular, copyright laws vary somewhat from country to country.