Something to Think About

Lawsuits and Quilters

My friend Rhonda sent me news of this latest scuffle involving quilters and the law, as a follow-up to my post about Pinterest.

I’m piecing this together (no pun intended) by reading the blogs of the two women involved: Emily Cier, of Carolina Patchworks and Kate Spain.  As I understand it, Moda sent Emily some of Kate Spain’s fabric to use in a quilt, which she did, and put it in her book.

As a side light, a tote bag was made to publicize the book (shown above in a screenshot from Amazon).  This particular screen shot was right above another shot of other quilters having their own totes as well (shown below).

Emily Cier received one of those very cheerful cease and desist letters, which basically puts the fear of God into you, if you’ve ever received one.  They are very effective.  She blogged about it.

Then Kate Spain, whose fabric is shown on the tote, blogged about her side of it too.  She gave an little illustration of how copyright works, encouraged others to continue using her fabric and tried to soothe the populace.  But we live in a digital, trigger-happy world, and I must admit some of the comments made me cringe.

But others had a legitimate question: if they create using Spain’s fabrics and that fabric is shown in books and on patterns, will they be sued as well?  I read through all the comments and didn’t see a response to that, but it was made clear once one commenter provided a link to Amazon and the tote bag.

And, then Emily followed up with a response.

I see the difference between the two issues–and if I were Kate Spain, I’d probably jump around too–but then does that mean that we can only use our own fabrics if, by chance, we become well-known enough (as in Emily’s case) to publish a book and want a promotional tote made to publicize our book? Somehow I don’t think Emily meant to appropriate Spain’s fabric designs, but instead was happy to have her quilt publicized on a tote.

In both cases–the Pinterest issue that I raised earlier and this one–it seem to me that copyright laws are at the core.  Many commented that the threat of lawsuits had disrupted their “pinning” habit, and they were a bit irked. (Agreed. However I do wish there were a way for Pinterest to “poke” or ping me when one of my images was being used.  Before I had a Pinterest account, there were no notifications whatsoever.)  And like one of my commentors, I’ve been frustrated by the amount of quilt designs that I once thought were in the public domain, being licensed and appropriated for a quilter’s business.  I remember even being disgusted when another icon of the blogging age, The Pioneer Woman, claimed the recipe for Texas Sheet Cake — which has been in my recipe file for about a century — as “her” buttermilk-chocolate cake recipe.  (I kind of stopped reading her after that.)

Will we as quilters be bound by the tangle of copyright laws that seem ambiguous as best, and harmful to the creative process, at their worst?  What do you think? Do threats of cease and desist lawsuits ever cross your mind when you make up a new quilt?  Do you think that all of us quilters are scrapping for the same slice of pie?  Or is it, as one quilter charged on Spain’s blog:

This situation is, I believe, the result of a designer who sells fabric, but is not a quilter and does not understand the process of creating quilts. A quilt is not a tea towel, paper napkin or plate. The implications for every quilt book, magazine or pattern published is simply staggering. The quilting community needs to take note of this issue.

In other words, who do you think “owns” that image on the tote bag: the fabric designer, or the quilt artist?

11 thoughts on “Lawsuits and Quilters

  1. Wow. This is the kind of stuff that ruins favorite things for me. I wonder if people have copyrighted the use of vintage sheets for quilting. That’d be a riot. How are people able to copyright patterns that have been around since forever? I’m so confused.

  2. This problem has been on Twitter before. Makes me want to go to Jo-Anns fabric and not worry about it. Is that what the designers want? I see a whole lot of handmade goods out there with the designer fabric, especially on Etsy. I wonder how Amy Butler feels about this. Thank you for the update.

  3. IMO, the designer owns the fabric, until I buy it, then what I make with it is mine. A pattern maker owns the pattern, not what I make from it, the item I make is mine. Neither the pattern maker or the fabric designer should be able to tell me I can’t sell it as I own it. I can sell anything I own. I read Emily’s response the other day and thought, okay, I see the point from a publishing standpoint. If you’re publishing a book, then you need to get permission, etc. It strikes me like music, every time a song is played on the radio there’s a royalty paid. I see the similarities. I do think though that designers/ pattern makers should be careful how they approach this. They can’t control everything. Once I’ve bought something, I can turn around and resell it, I can use it, I can modify it and sell it, really whatever I choose. What I can’t do is publish commercially, and with a pattern, I can’t copy the pattern. People need to remember that a copyright on a pattern is on the pattern, meaning I can’t reproduce the pattern (ie the instructions for making said item). The copyright has nothing to do with the item made from it.

    With regards to fabric, I see the designer’s point in this example, but again, it’s a slippery slope. If I have to be worried about how you’re going to react about how I’ve used your fabric, I won’t use it. In this case, we’re really just talking about publishing pictures of the fabric (yes, it’s a picture of a tote bag, but it’s still also a picture of the fabric). I can draw a distinction in this example between making a couple of totes and selling them, and publishing a picture in a book. What does concern me is how we define publishing and whether or not that includes my blog.

    The other thing we need to remember is that nothing is completely uniquely ours. It’s perfectly possible for 2 people to come up with the same idea independently. It happened to me numerous times in paper crafting. Also, if I can figure out how to make something by just looking at a picture, I don’t see how that’s a violation either. I’ve made Camille’s Swoon block just by looking at a picture, honestly I keep meaning to buy the pattern just to support her and haven’t gotten to it yet. I wouldn’t post it on my blog without giving her credit for inspiration (mine is made slightly different, no flying geese) and linking to her store to buy the pattern. I just think that’s right. But I don’t think I violated a copyright. Did I?

  4. For those of us who have been in the quilting world for more than a few years, the trend is very clear: fabric manufacturers have been marketing “designer” fabric. The emphasis is on ‘insert-designer’s-name-here’ latest line and quilts are being made, often exclusively, from that line. Fans, or devotees, can’t wait to get their hands on the latest designer’s line! Fabric manufacturer’s love and encourage this, However, does this not lead to the kind of legal questions now erupting? I think every quilter should be aware of these issues. Perhaps it is time for the quilt world to resist the lure of designer fabrics and start challenging themselves in the way they use fabric.

  5. Good point. I’m actually studying the copyright issues since I’m starting my graphic design business. Textiles is an area I thought about getting into. I really don’t understand why the artist who made the tote bag had a threat of a lawsuit upon on her hands. While yet Kate Spain is stating it’s okay for people to buy her fabric and make tote bags to sell on etsy. But yet this particular person cannot sale her tote bags on amazon, or she cannot sale her quilt design because it used someone else’s fabric? The quilter is not selling the fabric, she is selling the method on how to make a beautiful quilt.

    I don’t understand how Kate wants to encourage others to create things using her fabric, but if we do create things using her fabric, we can get sued. I’m curious if Kate is trying to say that we can use her fabric for personal use, but not business use? And should all graphic designers who design for the textile industry create a similar copyright on their textile designs?

    Great article!

  6. people responding to this don’t seem to understand the simple economics. the bag for sale was not made by fabric purchased in a manner that ensured Kate Spain was paid for her design. it was copied from a picture in the book. clearly, making it yourself is different than copying the finished piece and reprinting it on fabric for subsequent sale. it was simple stealing.

  7. So, Crystal, is it possible to ever own the image of a quilt you have made if you didn’t make the fabrics yourself? The quilt was made by the author of the book who probably thought she did own the copyright to her work when she allowed a company to publish it.

  8. Thanks so much for linking the different sides of the story for easy reading. It was very interesting. I believe most quilters do not intentionally break or violate copyright. It is simply part of our natural creativity to change and improve upon the pattern or design we are working on. To add our own personality to our quilts is our goal. After hundreds of years of piecing and designing, is there a truly original pattern or fabric design?

  9. This was a very good post and at the heart of what I have been thinking a lot about lately. I keep seeing all of these patterns for “new” quilt designs, that are things that my Grandmother and her quilting friends used to make. How is it “new”? How can a pattern designer claim the right to patterns that I in my 20+ years of making quilts have made before (without a pattern)?

    I have a friend who posted a tutorial for a quilt block that was inspired by someone elses quilt that they used a pattern for. The block was my friend’s interpretation of it. The pattern designer got all bent out of shape over it and some mean comments were posted on my friend’s tutorial. The block was a block that my Grandmother and her friends were all making back in the 1970s!! How is that “new”?

    I just really don’t get it! I will continue to make what I want with whatever fabric I want and if I want to sell the finished product I will. I very rarely purchase “designer” fabric anyway as most of it doesn’t appeal to me, and it is to expensive. If I do buy it, I get the stuff from last year or two years ago at a discount at my local quilt/fabric shop.

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