It’s a good question and a hotly debated topic over on the relevant Ravelry boards - I’m sure there are more sales and profit to be made through selling copies (although to be honest I’m never going to fund that pied-a-terre in Paris through vintage pattern proceeds, originals or copies).
This isn’t going to be an in-depth post about copyright licencing, but briefly … UK creative licence states that copyright remains in force for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years or, where the author is unknown, 70 years from the date the pattern was published (see the UK Copyright Service website for more info). I know there are many people out there selling copies of patterns and it’s unlikely there’ll be any comeback – it seems to be nigh on impossible to trace who created the patterns in the first place and the larger concerns who bought up some of the vintage companies in the ’50s and ’60s don’t seem to be overly quick to respond to any queries (although I’d be sweating slightly if I was selling any Vogue pattern copies.)
I’d feel uncomfortable about selling vintage patterns without at least trying to do some research, but sadly I just don’t have the time to do this at present. The fact that the author is untraceable makes me feel a little sad too – these fantastic designs were created by unsung talented designers and, at the risk of sounding a bit pompous, I’d rather not cash in on the fact that they weren’t properly recognised at the time.
Besides all that the patterns themselves are rather special items and that’s the business I’m in – selling the original patterns not the copies *insert usual book-championing arguments I’m prone to spout at the drop of a hat in the face of any pro-Kindle debates*. Admittedly it makes the patterns harder to part with but more enjoyable to send out to like-minded enthusiasts.
Having said that, I do keep a scan of every pattern I sell so I have a huge library and may re-consider the possibility one day (in a mythical future where I have more time or they’ve decided that hey we were wrong, cloning is ethically okay really), particularly for the 1930s patterns which are possibly out of copyright already.
There, got that off my chest. Now where was I? Oh yes … compiling an iTunes compilation list for a friend …
*Note*: For US copyright info, read Kristen Rengren’s post.