Many of you know about the recent issues surrounding copyright infringement involving a well-known fabric designer and a well-known publisher, and many of you may not. Having heard the rumors early on, and then some posts with names omitted, and finally the recent public acknowledgments of the whole thing I have been watching carefully. I read the early rumors and postings with quite a bit of incredulity; I felt confident that important facts were being omitted. More recently I have been aghast at how the community has been treating the fabric designer, whether it be due to a lack of understanding about copyright or some other reason. Regardless of the motives I must admit I was taken aback by some of the comments I have read.
I really have nothing to gain by weighing in on this issue; heck, the only likely consequence is that I alienate some potential or current fans. Nevertheless I feel compelled to talk about this from a few different angles, and the first is to address the blogging/commenting part of the community. Haven’t we gone down this road enough times already? Isn’t it about every month that another post/set of comments comes up that reminds us that words matter, that partially informed statements are at best hurtful and at worst seriously dangerous? Do we really have to remind ourselves again and again that the people who work in this (and every) field are in fact human beings who invariably put a lot of themselves into everything they do? This isn’t about taking sides, or a matter of being able to express your opinion; this is simply a matter of common decency. If you think the situation in question was anything other than heart wrenching for everyone involved I can assure you that you are mistaken.
This should never have happened. It is as simple as that. Neither the author nor the designer should be blamed in the least, not even the tiniest bit. But this really ought not be about blame. The issue has been settled. It is in the past. What I really want to talk about is what we should learn from this. I’m going to try to distill the rules surrounding copyright, at least as it applies to fabric.
Now that I’m talking copyright directly I’m going to use my own work as the example in order to simplify things. Here we go…
If you buy my fabric through legitimate channels (I don’t think there is a black market for designer fabric, but who knows) you can make whatever you want to make out of it. You can make things and give them away, you can make and sell things at craft fairs, you can make and sell on Etsy, Craftsy, your own website or whatever. If you want to contact Andover and buy 1,000 bolts of Flock in order to mass produce bags, dress, or quilts, feel free. I bet you Andover would even do a special printing just for you and cut you an awesome deal. If you buy the fabric you can make what you want out of it, and here is why: that way Andover and I are already receiving our royalty/or fee. Once those obligations are fulfilled the use of the fabric is up to the purchaser. Want to know what my royalty is? It is somewhere between 1 and 2% of retail.
If you want to use my fabric for a pattern either to sell that pattern or for inclusion in a book, that is great, too, please do. Perhaps you bought the fabric, or maybe Andover sent it to you, or maybe a shop you have a relationship gave it to you, heck maybe I sent it directly to you; all of those are fine. I will be flattered, I promise. When you do this, the images you use of the resultant object are about your design; the fabric is essentially happenstance. Hopefully my fabric makes your design look great, and vice versa. If you are using a single designer’s fabric I think it is good form to credit that designer, but that is just a nicety. I, and most designers, will likely help promote your design via social media. I cannot repeat this enough: there is no copyright problem here; you do not need my permission to publish and/or sell designs that utilize my fabric.
Now here is where you will get into trouble. If you take my designs and photograph them, scan them, or pull them from the web and reprint them to another surface to make things to sell you will be crossing the line. Let me be clear, this does not mean photographing a quilt to be included in a book, magazine, or pattern.
This would include things like scanning my fabric design, reprinting it on paper and selling that for scrapbooking.
This would include taking images of my designs and printing them onto mugs, sketchpad covers, sneakers or anything else Zazzle or similar sites can make and putting those up for sale.
This would include taking a photograph of my fabric designs and printing that on fabric to make things for sale.
This would also include arranging a group of my designs, whether it be done digitally or by physically arranging pieces of fabric (ie into a quilt or block), taking a segment of that arrangement and printing that on another material to be sold or made into something to be sold. Let’s take this quilt as an example:
If you had designed and made this quilt, photographed it, cropped down like this…
And then printed that cropped image onto fabric and used that as the primary fabric to make a tote bag…
You would be in serious trouble. You would be in violation of my copyright and I would call my lawyer. Further than that, if you were to do so that simply would not be okay; it would be downright uncool.
Let’s be clear. If you were to design and make that same quilt, take a picture of it and print the entire quilt onto a postcard, a calendar, or something of the like, that would be perfectly acceptable. If you were to print that quilt, along with your name on a tote bag like this I am pretty sure that would be fine:
The principle at hand here is the difference between the object that is the fabric and the designs themselves. If you are working with the fabric and creating a new object using the fabric you are safe. If you are using my designs and reproducing them, not the fabric they are printed on, you are in trouble. If you are making new fabric (or paper or any other surface) using my designs you are stealing my designs for your profit.
This isn’t just about money, though that does obviously play into copyright issues. Heaven knows there is not a lot of money in fabric; just ask any shop owner, a manufacturer, a mill, or any other designer. This is about the work. Ask any pattern writer how they feel when they see their patterns circulating on pattern sharing sites. Ask any author how they feel when they see their work plagiarized. Any creative endeavor is an incredible amount of work; working in a creative capacity is not just a job, it is a vocation. It has extraordinary rewards, but it can be very costly on myriad fronts. This is about respect. Whatever you may think of Marxism, I think Marx got at least one thing right: our labors are an essential part of our being, and to steal that labor is in no small way to dehumanize a person. It is to say that that labor is not due serious consideration, that the result of that labor is just another thing. Within a capitalist system that consideration is generally tendered monetarily through contracts, but that is only one manifestation of the essential concern. And bypassing that consideration is simply unjust.
I hope this clarifies copyright a little. I hope it also elucidates the issues at hand. But most of all I hope it helps put this all behind us, to help us put aside the unwarranted attacks and the animosity. Two talented designers got sucked into a problem that was not their fault; one fabric designer who I respect enormously, and care for deeply has been maligned needlessly and, to be honest, unfairly; a community I have grown to respect has once again gone down a painful path, and a great deal of misunderstanding has been generated. What I really hope for is that we can all work to avoid ill-informed criticism, and to support this community that gives us so much satisfaction.
***ADDED AT 7:45PM ON WED, APRIL 4TH***
While I tried very hard to make this post as clear as possible it appears, based on some comments and emails that there are still some questions. I will attempt to address most of those that I received in this appendix, but cannot be entirely exhaustive. I do want to take a moment to offer a few general thoughts:
1. Comparing anyone to a Nazi at any time and for any reason, unless that person is in fact a Nazi is and always will fall into the following categories: stupid, cruel, demeaning to the actual horrible history associated with the Nazis and the gravity of the loss felt by those affected by the Holocaust.
2. I want to state this absolute clarity: you will never be sued for making a quilt with fabric, designer or otherwise. Period. The end. If you still believe otherwise, please seek legal counsel.
3. Much of the early information surrounding the case that prompted this post is inaccurate, half-formed, and/or distorted. If you are still basing your concerns on that early information, please cease to do so; it will not lead to anywhere good.
4. While I do believe everything I have said to be legally correct, if you find yourself engaging in behavior that you suspect may be copyright infringement please seek legal counsel. As a rule of thumb, though, unless you are involved in the mass-production of designs that are not yours you are almost certainly safe.
There. Now, with that out of the way I’d like to address a couple of specific questions.
Am I allowed to use cropped images of the quilt I made with your fabric in my book, pattern, or to enter my quilt into a show?
Yes. So much of this is about context. A cropped image used like this:
Is perfectly fine, but that is very different than the way it is used in the example of the tote bag.
In this page layout, or anything like it, it is clearly a detail of a larger work, your larger work. The context is important. For example if that cropped image were digitally produced (ie done as a purely digital layout of the designs) and used as page 47 in a book entitled “100 Best Fabric Collections of All Time” there would be a problem. In this case it would be much the same as using an image of the Mona Lisa in a book without paying for permission to the rights owner. Why do you think Art History books are so expensive?
Can I use thumbnails of your designs in my pattern or book to indicate yardage requirements?
In my mind the answer to this is yes, though I am not absolutely sure. Let’s say I am 99% sure. It may get a little touchy for books depending on the specific context, and I would suggest that editors ought to know about the details here. When it comes to patterns I do not believe there is a legal problem. Again, context is important. If you want to use images of my designs as part of your pattern to illustrate yardage needs of each of those prints, that is entirely different than, say, using those same images to create a calendar of your favorite prints.
Again, to summarize:
1. If you buy fabric and make something, that new thing is yours to do with as you please. You will not be sued. Period.
2. If you photograph your creation and print that as part of a book, pattern, exhibition catalogue, etc. you will not be sued. Period.
3. If you A) take the images of my designs from my site, Andover’s site, the Fat Quarter Shop, etc. B) photograph my fabric, or arrangements of my fabric, or C) scan my fabric or arrangements of my fabric and print that image(s) onto fabric and sell that newly printed fabric or paper, or things made from that newly printed fabric or paper you will indeed be infringing upon my copyright. Do not do that.
If you are worried that what you are doing may be close to this last category of activity you may want to rethink what you are doing, and you should definitely seek legal counsel.
I hope this clarifies the remaining questions. This is the last addition I will be making, as I do not really have the time or energy to field every question everyone has about copyright. For the most part it involves a lot of common sense. Again, I caution you all to recognize that the early rumors about the prompting circumstances left out a lot of details and likely caused unnecessary hysteria. Please step away from the hysteria. None of this affects 99.99% of you. Resume sewing and using fabric as usual.
***ADDED AT 10:10PM ON WED, APRIL 4TH***
Frivolous lawsuits are always possible. This post in no way guarantees any particular person will not be sued by any other particular person, for reasons of copyright or otherwise. That said, I believe my statements to be sound and that they lay out the broad strokes of copyright law. Now what you all do in your lives and your legal circumstances is ultimately beyond my control. As always, consult legal counsel if in doubt.
***ADDED AT 6:23PM ON WED, APRIL 5TH***
Ripple effects happen. The law is complicated. Once a transgression takes place it often may spread to involve many other related elements and parties. That said, unless you find yourself involved in one way or another with the mass production of derivative product based on someone else’s designs you are infinitely unlikely to find yourself involved in legal proceedings related to your use of fabric.