June 21, 2012

Now that you ask

Yesterday, right out of the blue, my inbox filled up and there were many tweets and things got really, really crazy, really really fast. It turns out that the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) has asked Ravelry to take down infringing patterns and stuff, and to change the name of the Ravelympics, because the US Congress has granted them the  exclusive commercial right to the trademarks.  I guess that might have gone over okay, but in the letter it said that they the USOC believes that  "a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games.  In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work."

I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that right then - that's when the knitters went - to use a technical term, bash*t insane.

All of a sudden I was getting a lot of mail, and seeing a lot of tweets, and a lot of them were telling me that I was going to have to DO SOMETHING, and asking me what I thought.  Knitter feelings were hurt, and knitters don't like that, and they don't want to change the name, and the Ravelympics are exactly the same as the real Olympics and they've dedicated their lives to knitting, just like athletes and.... Well.  They hated it, and they want me to act, or write, or blog... and because I really try so hard to be balanced and fair most of the time, all I could think was "Oh, man.  You don't want to hear what I have to say here" and with that, I had a glass of wine and hoped that it would be gone in the morning.
It's not, and it might even be worse - and now there's mad talk of boycotts and more mail, and desperate messages to me, and I don't feel like I'm going to be allowed to ignore it,  and so here I am, thinking long and hard about this and trying to figure out what I'm going to say and why, and I hope you'll all bear with me, and try to understand.  I'm going to hit some of the highlights from my mailbox. Please - if you're not yet ready to have an open mind, if you're still too mad - go knit something for a little while until you're calmer and ready to consider some other perspectives, eh? 

They're trying to stop the Ravelympics! They can't do that!

Deep breaths my knitters.  Deep breaths. As my friend Denny would say, inhale pink, exhale blue.  Nobody said anything about canceling it, or changing it, or anything.  As a matter of fact it was very carefully stated that the worst case scenario - the very worst, terrible, horrible, very bad thing that can happen is that Ravelry would change the name.  I know that's really upsetting to some people, but really, they can't stop you from doing any sort of knitting thing - and they aren't trying to. They just have a legal right to the name- and get to say how it's used. Nobody's stopping anything or trying to stop anything. Whatever plans you had? It's the same.

We're just having fun! Knitters are cool! We're not hurting anybody! Why can't we use the trademark! Don't they have anything better to do than go after knitters?

This one is harder, but keep breathing. Here's the thing. A while ago (I'm going to change details here so that I don't single anyone out) Tina and I had the experience of discovering that some really nice knitters had decided to pay homage to the Sock Summit by having one of their own.  It was not a big event, it didn't hurt us in the slightest that they wanted that to exist.  It was a super fun idea, and we would have loved for them to go forward with it - because it didn't compete with the real Sock Summit in any meaningful way, and they were different enough that any thinking knitter would never have been confused. You could have knocked us over with a feather when our lawyer told us that we had no choice but to ask these nice knitters to use another name for their event. It turns out that under the law, if you don't defend your trademark every time, you lose the right to defend it at all.  So if we'd let those nice knitters use the name, we would have sort of legally said "we don't mind" and that would have worked against us if (and I'm just conjecturing here) a big company, like Vogue or Interweave decided to host a huge Sock Summit of their own, we would have no way to keep them from doing that. Crazy, right? That you can't just decide based on what's really significant or harmful?  It probably doesn't hurt the USOC to have Ravelry using the name, and knitters are just having fun, and it is a really good time, and it does seem silly - but it's also legally necessary, otherwise Apple can put out an Olympic branded Ipad, make a gajillion dollars off of their trademark and it would be hard to stop them. It's not that the USOC are being dicks.  It's that the law is stupidly inflexible- and that's the way the world works. The USOC isn't "beating up on Ravelry".  It's defending it's legal trademark.

(I've had a bunch of emails from people asking why the USOC didn't beat up on me when I did the Knitting Olympics all those years ago... and I have a couple of things.  First, I'm Canadian. It wouldn't be the USOC that came for me. It would be the COC - and they didn't.  I was as careful about the rules as I could possibly be. It turns out that because mine was tiny (a few thousand compared to a few million on Ravelry, and because mine wasn't hosted on a business site- especially way back then. (My enterprise cost money, not made it, and I have no advertisers, then or now.) I was extraordinarily careful about their logo (no merchandise or tee shirts or pins  - and had no events. Just people watching and knitting.  It's important to note that they have the exclusive commercial rights. I wasn't commercial enough for them.)

Oh SURE. The USOC can use the Olympic stuff to make money and that's cool, but Ravelry can't even use it for fun! I'm so sick of these corporations that are all about profit!  Don't they have something more important to do?

This one is even harder.  The USOC has the exclusive commercial right to use some particular trademarked words and images. That means that they are the only ones allowed to make money with those words and images. If they let other people use them to make money without charging them money, then they make less  money.  Yup, I know what you're about to say.  Ravelry isn't using them to make money. 

You sure?  I mean, I know Jess and Casey, and they're pretty smart cookies, and I think that they would be the first ones to explain to you that Ravelry is a for profit business that employs four people.  It exists to be fun and useful for us, and to make money for them. This is a good, smart thing.  Jobs and entrepreneurship are great and noble.  Employing people is noble.  Ravelry is not a charity. (Just keep breathing.)  Ravelry primarily makes its money from advertising dollars and pattern sales.  The more people visit Ravelry, the more patterns they sell, and the more their advertising is worth.  Therefore, Ravelry hosting a big fun thing that attracts lots of knitters is a commercial use.

As for the USOC - do you guys know what they do? I mean, other than ruin things for knitters furthering the ideal of the Olympics within the US?  They make it possible for American Athletes to go to the Olympics and maybe win your country some gold medals.

From their website: "The USOC also supports U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes on and off the field of play through programming such as direct athlete funding, health insurance, tuition grants, media and marketing opportunities, career services and performance-based monetary rewards. In addition, the Olympic Training Center facilities provide athletes with performance services, including sports medicine; strength and conditioning; psychology, physiology and nutrition assistance; and performance technology."

The USOC doesn't have federal funding, and if you don't want to fund them with your taxes, but you still want American athletes to excel and be among the best in the world, then this committee needs a way to make cash.  Licensing their trademark is how they do it.

Help me spread the word Steph! We should all boycott the USOC, and the Olympics because I don't want them to profit from their crappy litigious behaviour.  I won't be watching now! Just wait until the athletes find out about this!

Really?  Now I need to take a deep breath.  Let's let go of the trademark thing.  They had to do it, and you still get to do exactly what you wanted, just somebody else got the name first. . This is like trying to sign up for Ravelry as YarnMama and discovering that you'll have to be YarnMama23 or YarnMamma.  You'll still have exactly the same experience, once you get over the shock.   Now, the boycott.  Keeping in mind what the USOC does with its money, are you sure that the athletes would be enraged? Considering that the only thing the USOC can sell is its trademarks, and that the USOC makes it possible for a lot of American athletes to go to the Olympics, are you sure they would be on your side with this one?  Besides, boycotting the Olympics because knitters aren't getting to call their event what they want to?  If I was an Olympian, and I'd put in the work and effort that it took to get there, and that was the reason that my fellow citizens had decided not to give any kind of a crap about my effort... maybe I'm alone in this, but I think I'd be pissed - and not at the USOC.

They're saying that Knitting denigrates the Olympics! They're harshing on Knitting, and I'm a knitter and that means they're denigrating me! They're saying that my Olympic effort isn't the same as an athlete's Olympic effort and that's not fair because they don't get how much I care about knitting and how hard it is, and how much skill it takes and .... NOBODY GETS TO PUT KNITTING IN THE CORNER.

This is the really hard one, isn't it? This one is hard for me too. The translation for that  stream of consciousness is "My feelings are hurt" and I admit to the sting.  That language might have been careless,  (and they've apologized)  and it's a shame that it wasn't as polite or absolutely sensitive as it could have been.    I'd like you to remember that letter wasn't addressed to you,  but was one  enterprise writing to another, and usually there's not a lot of crying about feelings in business stuff, so maybe they weren't thinking a lot about knitter reaction when they wrote it.   I had to really slow down and read carefully to get over it, and I had to get real about what knitting actually is, and that was hard, because knitting isn't just important to me, it defines a lot of my life, and that makes it feel Olympian. 

What the USOC actually said, was absolutely not that Knitting denigrates the Olympics - or that knitting ruining the Olympics, or that they hate and disrespect us. They said (and I know it's a little stodgy) that using the same word - the word they own,  for "a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others" and for a competition where things are very, very different, denigrates the latter.  What they mean is that your contest isn't Olympic.  Our is, because this is what Olympic means, and we own the word.

That's hard to hear, but you know what? If someone came along and wanted to say that something I thought was way less work than knitting was the same as knitting, I'd feel a little denigrated too.  Like, what if you knew someone who ate kleenex - but they'd worked their whole life at getting good at it and they felt a commitment to it in their life.  Wouldn't you be a little pissed if they suggested that they had a skill that was the same as knitting? Wouldn't you be a little annoyed if they wanted to be a textile artist too? I mean, kleenex is a textile, and they are transforming it... right?

Being a knitter is very, very wonderful, and I happen to think that it's important, and really transformational in a lot of people's lives, and that a lot of people (myself included) have made a really significant commitment to it's importance in their life - a commitment that might feel a lot like being an elite athlete, but we're not.  Let me say that again really carefully. 
We are not like elite athletes.  We are really great, but we are not the same as they are. 
They are athletes.  We are artists.  We take materials and transform them into beautiful, useful items, and the world would be nowhere without that contribution from textile artists, and I mean that literally.  Some of us are making the goal of our lives the highest possible expression of this art form. (Not many though.  A lot of us are just really expertly executing ideas other people had, and are more concerned with doing that right and well.  We're still very clever though.)
We are not, however, spending our whole lives trying to be not just someone who can run 100 metres, but trying to be someone who can run 100 meters better than every single other person on earth - trying to put more sweat and training and work into that than anyone else ever has in the whole world, while knowing the whole time that you've only got a limited time to do that before you're too old (and too old is anywhere from 16 to 40, in the Olympics) and where are you getting the funding from anyway and man - I really hope that you don't get hurt this week, because your next chance to meet your goal is in FOUR YEARS.

Us?  We're artists. We have our whole lives to get good at it, and we can be the best at it anytime, not just once every four years and sure, we get repetitive strain injuries sometimes (some of us) but all Olympic athletes suffer, and damn, have you seen them? Have you seen what they can do? There are millions of knitters.  Millions and millions and you know what? Just about all of us will learn to knit really, really well.  Millions of us.  Them? There's just a few people on earth who can do what they do.  Just a few, and I'm not one of them, and I can't tell you how inspiring that is, and even though the Ravelympics are all in fun, and I sort of feel bad that the USOC might have used the wrong words to explain it...

We're not like them.  Knitting something - no matter how amazing the something,  isn't the same as competing in the Olympics - and while they were clumsy with that point?  I understand.

Those hurt feelings are real.  It's hard not to confuse that with actual injury, but at what point when we're all complaining, emailing, tweeting, blogging, phoning, posting... at what point do we start to look like we're saying "We don't want to play by the rules.  We're knitters, and there's enough of us that if we don't get our way, or if you hurt our feelings or don't talk to us the way we like it - we might get ugly."   It makes me wonder about stuff.  No matter what this ends up being called, or no matter how it goes down, in the end you're still cool and smart, and non-knitters still don't totally get why, and in my heart I know you're an artist, not an athlete, and I know this one really stung, but let's maybe think about putting down the pitchforks, stop sending nasty mail, stop the name calling and showing them what we're really made of.

Peace out Knitters. Stay Classy.

Please be civil in the comments. I know you've got it in you.  

Posted by Stephanie at June 21, 2012 4:55 PM