Copyright and Quilting

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I hesitated in writing this post because it can be a bit controversial, depending on who you’re talking to, but it’s also interesting and I’ve recently been learning a lot about it myself, so I thought I’d share my perspective here and point out some references for those of you who are inclined to look into this further.

We’ve all seen the notices on patterns and inside book covers that lay out the designer’s explicit rules for use; many of them use the words “for personal use only”, some include instructions for labelling items for display at shows, some prohibit any commercial use, and some say the user is free to do whatever they wish with items made from the patterns.

While the subject of copyright certainly encompasses a ton of different issues in the online and real world today, I’m only going to discuss this in terms of quilting.  And if you don’t sell your quilts or other handmade items, this likely won’t even apply to you, unless you’re part of a quilting/sewing group or you do classes for others.  Or you regularly ask others to photocopy patterns for you! LOL

Let me say a couple of things right off the bat so you know I do not encourage stealing (or “appropriating” as one of my favourite TV characters, Mary Richards, said in an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, which many of you might not even remember, but I’ve seen them all SEVERAL TIMES and own all the DVDs LOL):

I know there are people out there who steal photos and repost them as their own, especially on social media – NOT COOL

I know there are people who photocopy books/patterns and share them freely in groups like guilds or classes or social media groups, some might even resell them for profit – NOT COOL

I know there are people who use patterns and then take credit for the finished quilts without ever mentioning the original designer – NOT COOL

I know there are people who will buy one pattern, mass produce items made from it and sell them for profit, possibly at the commercial company level and perhaps even overseas – NOT COOL

I GET THAT SOME COPYRIGHT NOTICES are born from bad experiences I know nothing about, just as the warning on an electrical appliance to not use it in the bath tub is likely the result of someone, well….. I think you follow me here.

The idea of intellectual property is often vague and confusing, and there seem to be differing opinions about it even within the law.  Whether or not it becomes a legal issue in any specific situation seems to be about the degree to which a designer will take possible action, and many people take chances and just hope to not get caught.

So I’m not here to address whether or not any particular designer should or should not allow certain things.  Each designer has the right to put whatever limitations they choose on their work and then take legal action if they want to pursue a violation.  Then it’s up to the courts to decide if they have a case or not.  From what I’ve learned, it isn’t cut and dried.

What I’ve been wrestling with, and then deciding to write about, is the subsequent response of crafters like myself to the various warnings and notices published on patterns and fabrics available for our use and what happens if we choose to sell something we make.

One of my biggest obstacles is that people don’t always know what they’re going to do with a quilt after it’s finished.  Some of us never sell, some intend to sell them from the start, some don’t intend to sell but later have opportunity to do so and then what?  Can we even sell the quilt for the price of the materials we put into it?  Can we add a bit for our time?  Or is everything off limits when we are talking “sale”?

Each designer has their own perspective and rules for us to follow and some of them leave me questioning the benefit of the stricter notices I’ve encountered because of the response they invite from people like myself.

I’m just going to share a few things I’ve learned and experienced along the way, from dealing directly with pattern designers, reading various notices, and listening to some online interviews and podcasts regarding this subject.  Perhaps you’ll find some of it helpful.  Maybe you’ll agree with me and maybe you won’t 🙂  But here we go…

I wasn’t actually using or even purchasing many patterns myself until more recently when I decided that piecing certain things once in a while wouldn’t drive me totally nuts!  Because most of my quilts are intended for sale, I decided to go through the few books and patterns I had on my shelf and keep only those that allowed me to sell a finished quilt.  Needless to say, most are now gone.

But here’s the thing: because of the way certain rules are presented, and because of personal encounters on the subject, I’ve not only removed specific books and patterns from my house, I also no longer follow the web sites, blogs, or facebook pages of those designers.  I don’t want to see anything they do.  I don’t want to buy any of their stuff. It’s NOT out of spite; it’s because I cannot prevent my brain from storing ideas, so I choose to avoid regularly seeing what these people post and share for fear that sometime down the road I’ll be inspired to make something and it might end up resembling theirs.  Their explicit warnings give me the impression that they will readily pursue any violations and might even be in the habit of watching for them among quilters who have an online presence.  In fact, I’ve seen it happen.  So yes, I’m on guard!

Now I might just be a little fish in a great big quilting sea and my unfollowing and not purchasing isn’t going to break anyone!  The point is that instead of encouraging me to buy their patterns, fabric, or whatever they’ve designed, I will now buy nothing with their name on it.  And in my little fish quilting world I will be chatting about and recommending other people’s stuff – not theirs – and if I’m asked by my own followers I’ll advise them of where they need to be careful because I’ve honestly seen situations where certain designers have pounced on others – not on me – for sharing something that too closely resembled their own pattern.

The thing I find a bit funny about all this is that, for the most part, anyone buying a quilt from me or any other quilt maker is most likely NOT a person who is going to make it themselves.  Therefore, they aren’t going to buy the pattern anyway.  My making and selling one quilt from a pattern I have paid them for isn’t really taking away their business at all.

BUT, if I make it, and sell it, and give credit to the designer as I always do, the quilt buyer who loves it enough to pay for it might just go looking for more of that designer’s work.  And because I often share the process of making my quilts in photos and videos, other makers might see a quilt they want to make, inquire about the pattern, and be off on a search for that designer so they can also purchase patterns.  I’ve done that a few times myself after seeing another quilter’s finished projects!  So that isn’t going to be happening at all in my corner when it comes to certain designers; based on their own limitations and concerns over me selling one quilt (in over 200 quilts, I’ve only made one quilt pattern more than once!) they won’t get my ongoing business or any publicity or references that could come from my sharing their work.  I’m not deliberately advertising that people should NOT use their patterns or fabric or publishing their names anywhere; I’m just not using their items at all which means I AM advertising things designed by other people instead.

Again, they aren’t likely to notice the effect of that if it’s just little old me!  But is it just me?  As more and more people learn about the subject and start reading notices and sharing these things with their friends, will it still just be me?  I already know of one pretty famous quilter who chooses not to use a specific fabric line because of a publicized issue she became aware of (not involving herself) that made her decide to avoid using that designer’s products.  She talked openly about it herself so I’m safe mentioning it here 🙂

As I said above, designers have every right to make whatever rules they wish for how their stuff will be used.  I’m not trying to tell anyone what they should allow.  I’m just pointing out the possible responses and reactions that can come from making crafters fearful of some legal watchdog.

Let’s start with a positive notice you will see on the inside of a pattern or book from Missouri Star Quilt Company:

“Reproduction in whole or in part in any language without written permission from Missouri Star Quilt Company or BLOCK Idea Book is prohibited.  No one may copy, reprint, or distribute any of the patterns or materials in this magazine for commercial use without written permission of Missouri Star Quilt Company.  Anything you make using our patterns or ideas is your business, do whatever you want with the stuff you make, it’s yours!”

Doesn’t that last line just make you want to buy ALL their patterns?? LOL  Clearly, they don’t want people making copies and redistributing them for commercial use “without written permission”.  That makes sense and also gives the reader an opportunity to ask for permission if there is a special reason they need to make copies.  It doesn’t close the door completely, it just gives information about what to do if your situation warrants something different than what the book intends.  I will buy and use their patterns with confidence and peace of mind, and their reasonable and generous attitude makes me feel good about dealing with them.

I recently heard an interview with Tula Pink, fabric and pattern designer, on the subject of copyright.  She explained that once she sells a quilt pattern, she believes she has been fairly compensated for her design work, and that if a person wants to sell their finished quilt, it’s OK with her (she does appreciate being credited with the original design, which I would always do myself whether it was requested or not).  If a person wants to make more than one of a specific quilt to sell, she asks that they buy a copy of the pattern for every quilt they are going to sell, and said that if she sees that her pattern sales numbers are comparable to any quilts being sold using her patterns, she feels that is fair compensation for her, as the maker has done all the work of making the actual quilt.  I really appreciate her approach and I would be happy to purchase a second pattern from her for the same quilt if I decided to make and sell a second one.  Totally reasonable!

I also have a pattern book that limits commercial use but gives detailed instructions for labelling items for sale (or display at shows) in a way that gives credit to the designer and names the book the pattern came from.  Again, totally reasonable, as I believe we should always be giving credit to the designer of any work we use.  It’s just the right thing to do!

I have patterns for other quilted and handmade items that are protected from the usual things like photocopying and distribution without permission but allow for the completed items to be sold either in any quantity – one in fact encourages making multiples for markets etc. – or in limited quantities with the option of getting permission for anything over that amount (and it’s a generous limit that most wouldn’t exceed anyway!)  Both of these designers are very popular and have huge followings which continually share and spread their work, adding to their own fame in the crafting world.

And then I saw a notice that explicitly forbids the pattern buyer from selling any item made, in any quantity, in any venue.  And the door was closed, ie. no room for even asking.  Literally, there was a printed request that people not ask for an exception.  So that’s a big red flag stop sign with a flashing light on it (and maybe a siren!) for me.  Because those designers are apparently very worried about someone making an item and taking it to a farmer’s market in a rural community, even if it’s a fundraiser.  Some of you might be rolling your eyes here and thinking I’m being dramatic because which designer would seriously get their feathers ruffled by a farmer’s market?   But you know what?  As long as we’re a social media society where everything we share has the potential to go viral, I can’t take any chances.  If this person took the time to actually write those words, I’m going to assume they mean it.   And it’s too bad, because there are two patterns I would have bought that day!  (and I would have shared my work, custom quilting videos, recommended the patterns and the designer…) but I took them out of my cart.  Unless I can be absolutely certain that I will not sell the quilt, EVER, I can’t buy them.

I’ve seen a designer try to lay claim to something with a shape on it, a shape that is universally used, in infinite sizes, on all kinds of things, as if any person anywhere couldn’t have come up with a similar idea of how to use that shape.  It’s kind of difficult to even grasp this one, but maybe I am missing something!

As an extra note, I question why designers who make and sell their own custom quilts as a large part of their business (I’ve seen them priced in the several thousands) would release the patterns for others to use.  Obviously, they don’t want people in direct competition for a finished quilt sale. and I get that. But – and maybe I’m naive – if I had an original design and was making money from the artwork I exclusively sell, I don’t think I would want to hand out the guidelines for others to simply make it the same way themselves, especially since a lot of people do not respect copyrights regardless of strict warnings.  But to each his own, and those patterns are gone from my shelf too.

So you see, this post isn’t about me telling people they are right or wrong to have rules.  It isn’t even about saying that I want to break the rules, because I choose to respect what a designer has laid out if I opt to buy their patterns, because I do have a choice about that purchase!  I would want the same respect.  For me, it’s about the spirit of what we’re doing and how we’re presenting ourselves to the public world we live in, and what happens when we try to share our work without really “sharing” it, if you get what I mean.

Nobody wants to have their original work stolen, misrepresented, or mass produced for profit that takes away from their own livelihood, and it’s just plain wrong to claim someone else’s work as your own.  And I certainly don’t want to be putting myself in a position of even unintentionally violating someone’s rules.  But I personally think that giving a bit of freedom is probably more beneficial than restricting everything right off the top.  I’m pretty sure that most of these designers – even with their printed warnings – aren’t really worried about me selling one quilt in my Etsy shop, especially if I give them credit for the design and direct people to their own web site for more information (FREE advertising!).  But in order to protect themselves from the thieving commercial reproduction that sometimes can happen, they have cut me out as well (throwing out the baby with the bathwater?) And in order to protect myself, I take them seriously.  I choose integrity.

Thankfully, I’ve found enough pattern designers who are happy to allow the sale of a finished quilt and grateful to be given design credit, and free publicity, so even though I like wide open spaces and whole cloth quilting, when I do want to use a pattern, I have lots to choose from!

If you’re interested in more information about this topic, I have a few good links to share with you. You will hear debates about whether or not a quilt pattern can actually be protected by copyright beyond the printed pattern itself.  You will hear differing opinions from designers and quilters alike.  It’s all good stuff and worthy of consideration from your own perspective.  It seems that copyright in the quilting world is a fairly new issue, brought more to light with the popularity of quilt shows and competitions, and fuelled by the internet’s vast possibilities for both sharing ideas and violating intellectual property rights.

Leah’s podcasts include personal crafting topics at the beginning, so if you want to get straight to the interviews, you need to go part way through to get there.

Leah Day Podcast #49 with Elizabeth Townsend Gard (law professor)

 Leah Day Podcast #57 with Heather Kubiak (copyright lawyer)

and there are a whole bunch of fun interviews in the podcast series led by Elizabeth Townsend Gard that you can read about and access from the web site: Just Wanna Quilt

Now I better go and make sure sharing that Toy Story meme at the top of the page isn’t going to get me into trouble…

 

 

 

 

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