Back Away from the Copier….

Okay, here’s the scenario.  You’re casually searching the internet quilting sites.  You’re not really looking for anything specific, but you come across this darling quilt pattern.  You check the price.  It’s not unreasonable.  Added bonus, it’s a digital download.  Before you can say bibbitybobbityboo, you hit up Paypal and it’s yours.  You download it to your computer, print it out and raid your stash.  Next thing you know you’re having a wonderful time making this darling quilt.

In the middle of this creative chaos, a quilting buddy drops by and has the same reaction you did to the pattern – she falls in love with it and wants to make the quilt, too.  You give her the website and the price, but she responds with this: “Why don’t you just email me a copy of your pattern?”

And here’s where the slippery slope of copyright violations begins.  On one hand, it’s simply an email, upload, point, click, and send.  On the other hand, your friend didn’t pay the designer for her pattern.  You want this person to remain your quilting buddy, but you know the sale of patterns is what funds the designer’s cost of living.  But it’s only one copy, right?  It doesn’t really hurt anything.

Or does it?

Before we slide too far down this slippery slope, let’s take a brief look at what a copyright is, what it covers, and how long it lasts.  What we recognize as a copyright began in 1790.  The first copyright law was written into the United States Constitution.  Copyright materials were given legal status in the US District Courts and were good only for 14 years.  Things rocked along pretty smoothly for 40 years.  Then the United States Supreme Court heard the Peters v. Wheaton case, which entailed a reporter’s publications of the Supreme Court Justice’s opinions.  Another person (Wheaton) published Peters’ (the reporter’s) work.  The justices ruled against Peters because the work dealt with opinions which could not be copyrighted.  The next big copyright event occurred February 3, 1831.  New regulations pushed the lifespan of a copyright to 28 years and musical works could now be copyrighted.  From there, the timeline goes like this:

August 18, 1856 – Dramatic works are protected

March 3, 1865 – Photographs are protected

July 8, 1870 — The second general revision of the law centralized copyright activities, including registration and deposit, in the Library of Congress. It also extended protection to works of art and gave authors the right to create their own derivative works, including translations and dramatizations. The indexing of registration records began.

August 31, 1876 – The Statue of Liberty is copyrighted

January 19, 1880 – Supreme Court decides ideas cannot be copyrighted

January 12, 1885 – It’s determined government publications cannot be copyrighted

There have been additional tweaks made to copyright laws, but these are the big ones.  What’s important to quilters boils down to just a few main points.

  1.  Anything written or published prior to 1927 is now public domain.  There are a few exceptions to this, and these are primarily major works in which a family, publishing house, etc., has gone to great lengths to maintain the copyrights.  Even the Wizard of Oz books are now public domain.
  2. Anything written or published between 1928 and 1978 has a copyright life of 95 years, but the copyright had to be renewed 28 years after the work was first written or published.
  3. In 1992 the United States Copyright office completely eliminated copyright renewals. 
  4. You can copyright a quilt pattern, article, book, etc., in one of two ways:  Register it at the US Copyright’s website or mail a copy of whatever it is to yourself and don’t open it.  The postmark serves as date marker just in case your copyright is called into question.  The unopened envelope or package demonstrates it hasn’t been tampered with. 

If a work – be it a musical composition, an article, a book or part of a book, or a quilt pattern – has a copyright, this means only the author, composer, or designer has the right to distribute the copyrighted work as he or she decides.  Which means if you didn’t have the designer’s permission to email your quilting buddy a copy of your pattern, you’ve broken the law.  So will the police (the real police, not the quilt police) break down your door and arrest you?

In all probability, the answer is “No.”

Unless you are making hundreds of copies, selling them, and pocketing the proceeds, your one shared pattern with your quilting friend will raise no eyebrows nor make you need bail money.  However, what you have done is taken money away from the quilt designer.  These quilty artists and engineers spend huge chunks of their time coming up with wonderful patterns, notions, and reading material for quilters.  Yes, it’s fun.  Yes, they have a passion for quilting and quilters.  But they also have bills to pay and mouths to feed (even if it’s just their own).  Selling these patterns, notions, books, etc., is not just their passion, it’s their job.  It’s how they make ends meet.  It’s how they monetarily survive to create even more patterns, notions, and reading material.  If enough people “share” the designers’ goods, it can put a serious dent in their income.  Enough to make them warily decide if they’ll invest the time and energy to do it again.  So at this point, I think it’s important to realize making copies of patterns for your friends is definitely an illegal activity, but even more than that, it’s unethical.  Some folks may even say you’ve stolen money from someone without getting caught. 

In the not-too-past-past, a Facebook quilting group’s administrator wanted to begin a group quilt initiative.  The premise was everyone who wanted could make the quilt and they would share pictures and their construction experiences on the Facebook page.  It was a noble idea, and one meant to bring the group together. The issue which sent everything sideways was this:  The administrator made copies of books and online instructions from several bloggers and combined them in the group project without permission from the bloggers/designers (several who, by the way, were members of this Facebook group).  The result was a great deal of rudeness, and the administrator threw the protesting bloggers out of the Facebook group.  The admin’s reasoning was the patterns were all wonky log cabins and people have been making log cabins quilts for hundreds of years.  The bloggers’ stance was, “Yes, that’s true, but you lifted my directions, word for word, without asking me for permission to use my instructions.” 

And the bloggers/designers were right.  Despite the fact the log cabin quilt block is one of the oldest blocks, the instructions belonged to the bloggers and the Facebook admin should have sought their permission to use their directions.  Revisiting our initial scenario, let’s say the quilt pattern your friend wanted a copy of was made of tiny Dresden Plates.

The Dresdan Plate has been around for over a hundred years.  It’s obviously not copyrighted any longer.  But the directions written by the designer are not that old.  That’s what is copyrighted.   

At this point, I would like to address a few copyright areas which can seem a little gray. 

  •  What can you do if a friend or quilting group really likes the pattern you’re using and wants the pattern?

There are several answers to this question.  If you’re through with the pattern, you can always let them borrow your pattern.  If you don’t think you’ll ever use the pattern again, you can give them the pattern.  If neither of these are viable options, send them the website information, and gently explain why you don’t copy patterns.  One of three things will happen.  If the person didn’t know copying (either by email or print) a pattern was a copyright violation, they’ll agree with you and purchase their own pattern.  If the person isn’t your real quilting buddy, they may be a bit huffy about it (don’t think it won’t happen – it has to me).  However, if the person is a real friend, they won’t think anything about it and either purchase the pattern or ask you to loan it to them when you’re finished. 

  •  Is there anything quilt pattern related which is not copyrighted?  Surprisingly, most quilt motifs are not copyrighted, unless they’re highly specialized, computerized, or are a pantograph.  A quilt you make is not copyrighted, and quilts you make to give to others are not copyrighted because no money has changed hands.  It gets a little trickier when you make quilts to sell.  If you make a quilt from a designer’s pattern, then you may need to get permission to sell quilts made from the pattern.  However, if someone hires you to make a quilt from the pattern, that’s different.  The pattern is purchased, and you are paid for your labor.  The best advice I can give is read the fine print on the pattern.  Most designers state their copyright policy somewhere on the it.

What about if the pattern is in a magazine or a quilt book by various designers?  Again, read the copyright policy in the front of the book or magazine.  Most of the time you only need permission from the designer to sell quilts made from their pattern.

  •  What about a raffle quilt?

Guilds and other quilt groups make raffle quilts to raise money.  The quilt is made, and tickets are sold for a chance to win the quilt.  If a pattern is used, the guild or group needs permission from the designer.  Let me also add this:  I’ve worked with my guild’s raffle quilts for nearly 13 years.  We have never had a designer tell us “No.”  We are always very careful to give the designer credit on our tickets or any other printed information, either in hard copies or digital.

  •  If you alter a quilt, at what point does it stop being the designer’s work and become yours?

The general rule is if anything – a work of art, a poem, play, music, or quilt – is altered more than 40%, the design then is yours.  However, there is kind of an ethical caveat to this.  Once that 40% is bridged, the original work is given some credit, such as “Inspired by: ____” on the label.

  •  What if I have a pattern which is out of print and my friend wants to use it?  Is it okay to make a copy of it then?

If the pattern was printed prior to 1928, the copyright laws have long expired.  There are no problems.  However, quilt patterns do come and go quickly in our quilting world.  Personally, I had a quilt pattern I looked for several years and finally found it on a used book site.  I can share how I handle the out-of-print situation, but this is one of those gray areas you need to come to your own conclusion.  I search the web and see if the pattern or book is still in print anywhere (not used editions, but new).  If it is, I order from there.  If my searching comes up empty, I make a copy – especially if I know the designer is deceased.  Most of the time, a designer’s family doesn’t continue to operate the business after the designer passes.  They will sell what they have in stock and then close the business or sell it to another designer.  There are a few exceptions to this, such as Sue Garman’s quilting site, Come Quilt with Me.  As I understand, her daughters are still running her site and printing her beautiful patterns.

  •  Do I need to protect my own quilt designs? 

Yes, yes, yes – a thousand times yes.  Copyright it (by either method mentioned above).  Don’t share it on social media until you do.  Even if you have no plans on mass producing patterns or becoming the next quilting show star, all your hard work is encompassed in that quilt.  Don’t think some conniving conperson won’t lift your design, claim it for theirs, and mass produce it on those cheap “blankets” we’ve all seen on Facebook.  It’s your baby.  Protect it.  

One final word about designers.  You can promote them without fear of any copyright infringement.  If you see a quilt you like on Pinterest, pin it.  This drives more quilters to the quilt, and they’ll discover the designer you’re so fond of and maybe go purchase a pattern or two from their site or one of their preferred retailers.  You can mention the name of the pattern, the designer, and the designer’s website on social media.  This will go a long way to help them out.

It is true one measly copy of a quilt pattern does little harm.  However, if enough people do this, it can really hurt quilt designers.  I even heard – firsthand, by the way, from a very popular quilt designer and teacher – she had to stop her students from turning off their cameras in Zoom classes.  If you’ve taken Zoom classes, you know turning off your mic and camera can broaden your band width and keep your computer from freezing during Zoom.  During the time she was allowing students to turn their camera off, it seems someone videotaped the workshop with their phone and then loaded it up to YouTube.  This allowed hundreds of people to access her classes for free.  It wasn’t fair to the students who paid for the workshop, and it certainly wasn’t fair to the designer who makes part of her living from paid classes.  Some copyright issues deal with gray areas.  Others are clearly black and white.

Until Next Week, Remember the Difference is in the Details!

Love and Stitches,


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