Copyright laws and the Quilter

There is often a lot of confusion over copyright laws as they apply to quilting and crafting. Here I hope to explain some of the cans and cannots that you need to bear in mind while working with commercial patterns and products.

What is a Copyright?

The Constitution of the United States grants Congress the authority to "promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries".

Public Law 94-553 allows authors and artists "the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

  1. to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords*;
  2. to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
  3. to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  4. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly; and
  5. in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly."

* The term is "phonorecords" but further sections of the law clarify this to include any method of recording.

A copyright is the right of the author or creator to allow others to perform, display, or transmit in any fashion reproductions of part or all of his or her creative work.

A copyright is intended to protect the livelihood and income of persons who create by preventing others from reproducing that art or image and profiting by it or by denying the original creator income from sales and licences of that product. In other words, if you copy something and sell it, you violate the law. If you copy something and don't sell it, but do deny the author an income from it, you are still in violation.

What can be protected by the Copyright laws?

"Works of authorship include the following categories:
  1. literary works;
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words;
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works;
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  7. sound recordings; and
  8. architectural works.

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." (17 USC Sec. 102)

In other words, something you create as a "fixed expression" --written, drawn, sung, etc. -- can be protected by copyright. The process or procedure you use to create them can not be copyright protected. (You can, however, file for patent protection)

What is not protected?

According to the US Copyright Office: Your expression must have some creative and original merit. For example, a list of book titles in the guild library does not warrant copyright protection. A list of titles with brief descriptions of each book, a "rating" by a guild member, arranged with drawings in an attractive spiral binding does show effort at original workmanship. That version of your library list has copyright protection. This does not prevent anyone from designing a different booklet with different pictures and descriptions for the same list of books.

But I don't live in the US!

The 1971 Universal Copyright Convention, known as the Berne Convention, was signed by a number of nation states in order to "provide for the adequate and effective protection of the rights of authors and other copyright proprietors" (article I).

They agree that works "published in that State shall enjoy in each other Contracting State the same protection as that other State accords to works of its nationals first published in its own territory." (article II)

The Berne Convention was signed by: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States of America, and Yugoslavia. Further agreements were signed between the US and nearly every other nation on earth.

The full text of the Berne Convention, including additional copyright treaties and conventions.

When you can copy

Making a copy is part of the "intended use": you buy a quilt pattern which consists of a typed booklet and templates. It is expected that you will trace the templates and reproduce the quilt design in fabric.

To quote a new book in a review you write for your guild newsletter: you can quote parts of a book or pattern (including pictures) that are only a small section of the whole, for purposes of a review, research article, news story, etc.

When you want to have a copy to take to class while the good one stays home: you can copy the relevant pages from your quilting book to take to class so you don't loose the book you purchased.

Replacing lost or damaged items: your cat gets into the sewing room while you're at work and shreds the tissue for the paper piecing blocks you're working on. It's okay to copy the missing portions of the pattern from the copy your friend has.

When the author includes permission: you have my permission to copy this article for your guild newsletters or class handouts. You must always include the author's name and copyright notice along with anything you reprint.

You are teaching and want to illustrate an example: several pages in Judy Quilter's newest book are laid out to show the steps very clearly. You want to demonstrate this to your graphic design class so you copy two or three pages and make overhead slides.

You write a parody: for fun you take a popular rock song and change the lyrics to reflect your love of fabric and sewing. You write new words in place of the original ones but sing it to the same tune at your quilt guild meeting.

The copies will only be used for your personal reference: at the Houston Quilt Festival you take photographs of all the quilts you like, and keep them at home to refer to for ideas in making your own quilts.

The copy is "incidental": at a show you photograph the members of your quilting guild for the newsletter. Parts of several quilts can be seen in the background.

The work was created by the United States Government: your guild receives a federal grant to design a quilt to hang in the White House. The quilt is considered part of the Public Domain and may be reproduced by anyone.

When you cannot copy

When your copying is intended to substitute for purchasing the item: your friend has a new pattern booklet you like. You figure if you photocopy it you can save yourself $6. This denies the author the income from your lost purchase.

When the work is not your own: your guild wants to copy favorite patterns from published quilting books and hand them out to the new members. The guild can distribute patterns it designs and writes, but not instructions written by someone else.

The copies deny the copyright holder due income and profit: for a fundraiser you decide to copy a popular wallhanging pattern and sell it in a different package. You change the colors used and give it a new name. This is also known as stealing.

The item is meant to be "consumable": it's a set of tissue patterns you sew on and tear off. Copying additional sets denies the author income from unsold patterns.

The pattern does not have a copyright notice on it: it's still protected by the law. The notice is recommended as a method of enforcing copyright, but not required.

The book was printed in a foreign country: the United States respects the rights of authors in other countries, and grants them protections. Other countries are expected to grant American authors the same privileges.

When the item is out of print: the author or publishing company still holds the rights to reproduce that material. Just because you can't find a copy in a store does not mean you are free to copy the one the library has.

The copies are being made for a non-profit organisation: all organisations are expected to seek permission to copy. Further, the law recognizes that "many 'non-profit' organizations are highly subsidized and capable of paying royalties". (17 USC Sec. 106)

You found the picture on the internet: electronic images on diskettes or web pages are considered a form of publishing and are protected by the law.

It is specifically prohibited by the copyright holder: a sign saying "No Photographs" is posted at the entrance to the quilt show vendor's booth, preventing you from taking pictures of the displayed quilting samples.

Full text of the US copyright laws.
This document in Word for Windows 2 format.

Disclaimer: I'm a librarian, not a lawyer. This information represents my educated interpretation of the laws. If you are in a situation requiring more edification regarding a specific copyright violation, please consult with a legal professional who can assist you personally.

This page © 1996 Dawn Duperault. Permission granted to copy and distribute within quilting guilds, quilting newsletters, or to students in quilting classes.

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