Copyright infringement and being reasonable

design, fabric

Many of you may have read about the dispute between Kate Spain and our publisher C&T. Kate has posted her version of the story and C&T has posted its thoughts. Here’s the Readers’ Digest version based on what each party has written in their public statements: Kate Spain took legal action against Emily Cier, the author of the Scrap Republic because Emily featured a quilt made with fabric designed by Kate given to her for the book by Moda. C&T, as the publisher of the book, became involved in defense of Emily. Kate also took issue that a photo of the quilt from the book, was made into a tote bag and sold by C&T. Kate Spain claims that there was never a lawsuit and that she didn’t sue anyone. C&T asserts that “Ms. Spain was asking us to destroy all copies of the book and tote bag, pay damages, pay attorney fees, or face a copyright infringement lawsuit” and that the dispute lasted for months because there was a quilt in a book made with fabrics she designed and a tote bag made from a photo from that book.

Here’s our perspective.

When we walk through Quilt Market and flip through books we notice that some people have decided to knock off iconic quilts of ours, especially those published in Modern Quilt Workshop (2005) or the collection of commission quilts on our website. It is disheartening, discouraging and frustrating. Last year in Houston I intentionally walked a long route to our booth each day so I wouldn’t have to see one of our quilts knocked of in the booth of a major fabric manufacturer. Seriously, it stinks. In one instance when it was particularly flagrant we emailed the designer (who had emailed us a year earlier requesting one of our catalogs) and asked her not to sell our pattern. She ignored us and sold it anyway.

In one instance a major manufacturer began selling a finished quilt that appeared to be identical to one of ours. There was no doubt that it was ours. We did not call lawyers. We did not raise our voices. We made a phone call and talked it through like civilized people. As it turned out the manufacturer had unknowingly bought the design from someone in India who admitted to taking it straight from Modern Quilt Workshop. There was no intent to harm us. It was a mistake. The manufacturer was reasonable and so were we. The entire episode was resolved in one phone call, a few emails and a written settlement. Could we have gotten more money out of them if we had involved lawyers? Absolutely. Is that who we want to be as human beings? Absolutely not. The manufacturer offered to destroy the remaining inventory of the quilts, which sounded ridiculously wasteful to us so we told them not to. Had the manufacturer not admitted wrongdoing we would have called lawyers but they would have been given the directive from us to be reasonable, fair and quick to resolve the issue. Had they not been so, we would have fired them and found other lawyers that represent our values.

I would also add that if any of you want to use any fabric that Bill and I have designed in your books, we would be delighted and honored.

41 thoughts on “Copyright infringement and being reasonable

  1. Copyright issues are so confusing. In this day and age, with so many indie quilt pattern designers and the internet, I would think that fabric designers would love to see their fabric used in quilts for sale and publications. I was so happy when Amy Butler lifted her ban on use of her designs in quilts made for publication and manufacturing (see faqs on her website). It only made we want to buy her fabrics even more, as then I didn’t have to worry about violating a copyright issue. When you make a quilt and offer it for sale on etsy are you supposed to contact every fabric designer and ask permission? The use of a quilt design “lifted” from a book and used for mass production, without any compensation for the design is clearly a copyright violation, as happened in your case and I commend you for being reasonable.

    1. Obviously there’s a lot of legal murkiness when it comes to this issue but the prevailing wisdom is that if you are using small amounts of one fabric, you are probably fine. If you plan to use and entire line in a quilt you sell on Etsy, you should ask permission from the designer.

  2. I have read some of the many comments on the issue (including Ms. Spain’s) and appreciate your thoughtful approach. I think ‘stealing’ someone’s quilt designs is cause for alarm, and think you have been generous to those that have done this to you. I still don’t see why, however, Ms. Spain has issue with the book where someone used her fabric for their own designs. I mean…isn’t that what she wants us to do with her fabric…design, make and enjoy the creative process by making something with it? I suspect there are many wannabe quilt book authors taking her fabric out out of the mix for their quilts!!

    1. I think the take-away from all of this is that their are two perspectives on the “value” of a quilt. Although the quiltmaker and pattern designer may feel that the money they would get from selling a quilt reflects the time, cost of materials and talent needed to produce the quilt, Kate Spain is suggesting that a portion of the value of that quilt belongs to her because without her fabric designs the quilt would have less value. I think the problems arise when people begin making money. Translation: if you’re using her fabric to make things for yourself that you don’t plan to profit from, that’s OK. If you’re using her fabric in a product that you plan to sell, you need her permission. We have a similar issue with our patterns. You can make them for yourself but please don’t make them and sell them to Macy’s.

  3. Weeks, you and Bill represent “integrity” in it’s highest form. It is an honor to know you.

  4. so very well said. this topic has been floating around blogdom, and your readers digest version was well written and helpful. i love your quilt designs, and own most of your books. i have purchased them from various places, the most exciting was finding your early book in Bermuda at a little book shop. I now will go Like you on facebook!


  5. sigh. I still find it confusing. Don’t the fabric designers profit when we buy their fabric? I understand the issue around not using copyright patterns for commercial use, but fabrics? what are those of us who don’t design fabrics supposed to use? maybe I’ll just stick to vintage fabrics, thrift shop finds and my own hand dyes. Will the fabric designers like that?
    btw: I don’t sell my quilts, except for an occasional one to a friend.

    1. Brenda – you’re preaching to the choir here but I’ll try to explain the other perspective. If you buy a yard of a $10/yd fabric the designer is likely to get between 12-20 cents of that sale. (I’ll wait for you to recover from the shock of those numbers) Some designers feel that if you sell a quilt with their fabric (or a book of quilts) that you were partially able to sell it because of their designs so they want a cut of each sale – the sale of the fabric to make the quilt as well as a cut for the finished quilt/book sold. You can protect yourself by using fabrics by designers (like us!) who have a policy that allows this use, by using lots of different designers’ fabrics in your quilts, by using fabrics without a specific designer’s name associated with it or by getting written permission from the designer.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. Again, I don’t mass-produce items, but if I sold something on Etsy and used a tiny bit of Kate Spain’s fabric, along with many others, since I’m a scrap fabric, do you think that’s a problem? to muddy the waters further, I get scraps from other people all the time and I have no idea who the designers are. Where I live we have few quilt shops and designer fabric in Canada is quite expensive, so I’m mostly a scrap quilter.
        Thanks so much for hosting a discussion on this and for presenting your reasonable approach on copyright issues.

      2. The scrap quilters have the least to worry about because if you’re using 30 different fabrics by a dozen different designers, it’s unlikely that any one designer will claim that you quilt is dependent on their design work. The issue with the quilt and tote bag in question was that it was made entirely from fabric from one designer.

    1. IMHO with commercial fabrics now at $10+ a yard, being expected to ask permission to use these fabrics in something you plan to sell is a bit like being required to ask a commercial paint manufacturer for permission to use their paint to create a painting you plan to sell. Fabric is my palate, am increasingly expensive supply material that I use to use a lot more of to create things to sell.

      This conflict is why my consumption of commercial fabrics has dropped over the last year by 80%, and it is why as places like Spoonflower get more affordable, and as more people seek education in surface design and hand dying/printing, the commercial fabric market will surely experience an increased reduction in sales because what people have to use to avoid all these conflicts in order to create the handmade items they sell will cause changes in the fabric designs expected by consumers in the secondary market of handmade items.

      It just seems to me that commercial fabric designers and manufacturers are deliberately cutting off their noses to spite their faces.
      On the plus side, hand made items are getting more unique all the time, largely due to people turning to using the hand dyed/painted material they are now learning to create.

      1. Let’s be clear that this isn’t the position held by most commercial fabric designers and manufacturers. Certainly there have been in the past other controversial use statements issued by Amy Butler and Heather Ross, but the last I heard, both had issued a policy that allowed for use of their fabrics in this way. I would also add the there is a difference in the quality of the fabrics and dyes at Spoonflower. I think Spoonflower is wonderful and we have used it for special projects in which we need a custom fabric and we were willing to sacrifice the stability of the inks over time for it. However, I would never use Spoonflower for a quilt that needed to be washed regularly. I will also add that the cost of fabric is driven primarily by the price of cotton, not the 12-20 cents a yard that most designers make when you buy their fabric.

      2. There is another law called the Fair Use Doctrine that clarifies what can and cannot be done with a copyright.

        When you read the Fair Use Doctrine you read that it is not necessary to to get permission to use a pattern or a fabric before using them in a quilt you plan to sell. A copyright protects original creative works. The copyright does not extend beyond the work protected. For example, a copyright of a new quilting pattern only protects the actual pattern; the copyright does not extend to items made from the pattern. Using the “copyright” as a way to limit the use of a pattern can’t be legally enforced.

  6. This is the first I’ve heard of this little “kerfuffle.” Sad that things like this happen. It is good though that it gives us all a moment to appreciate giving credit where credit is due. I only hope that events like this don’t scare off really talented people that could be contributing fantastic things to the quilting experience.

  7. Thanks for such an informative post on a very sensitive topic. But I’m still a little confused about the disclaimer on many commercial patterns (including yours) that state that the pattern is for personal use only. Does that mean that if one of my clients likes one of your quilt patterns, I can’t make it and sell it to them? I can only make the quilt for myself? Forgive me if I sound stupid, but I don’t get it. If I make a quilt using one of your patterns, and credit you as the designer, why can’t I then sell the finished quilt? We’re talking one here and there – not mass produced factory quilts. If you can help me understand this concept, I would be forever grateful. Your patterns are fantastic, by the way – I love them all!

  8. Thanks Weeks! I live pretty close to Emily and have been following this closely. It really was a MESS. What made it worse is that no one contacted Emily until the lawsuit. That is not just wrong, it’s cowardly. Whenever I have a problem with a person I try to contact them face to face and if that doesn’t work then I might go up a level. This is just sad. Thanks for clarifying your views. I have seen a knock off of one of your quilts on a major manufacturers site and thought ‘REALLY?’ They did credit you as ‘inspired by’…but it was yours all yours.

  9. Kathy, I have the exact same question. I have friends who don’t sew, will never sew, but who love the quilts I have in the books on modern quilting I collect. They have asked me to make something from these books, and want to pay me for my time and labor, but is this OK? It’s not claiming that I have in any way come up with the design, rather that they’re paying me to make something they can’t or won’t make themselves. Would making a label for the back with the quilt name and designer info, along with the piecing and quilting info of the fabricator be acceptable? I would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Kathy and AmandaL,
      I have waited to respond to Kathy’s question because it’s probably more of a post than a quick response but the short answer is no, it’s not legal to take a commercial pattern or a pattern out of a book and make a quilt from it to sell to someone. A quick analogy would be that your client would like to have a recording of “Rolling in the Deep” because they like that song. But it would be illegal for you to record that song and sell it to them without paying royalties to Adele, who wrote that song. You are welcome to sing it around the house but you can’t record it and sell it, even once, without compensation to the artist who did all of the work developing it. The same is true with patterns. I’ll do a longer post on this but I wanted to give a quick explanantion so you understand that it’s not legal.

      1. Hi, you have a wonderful sense of values, thank you for this commentary on a very sensitive issue.
        Can I point out a mistake in this reply to Kathy and Amanda? If you consider the “Fair Use Doctrine”, a law that clarifies what can and cannot be done with a copyright, you see that a statement such as “it’s not legal to take a commercial pattern or a pattern out of a book and make a quilt from it to sell to someone” is actually not true.
        I hope you will take the time to consider the Fair Use Doctrine and understand that using a pattern to make a quilt is not “copying” the pattern. Legally, the quilt is called the “end product” and is not a “copy”.

  10. It’s an interesting and troubling topic, for sure. I have several patterns from others where I have also purchased a cottage license, which allows me to use their pattern and sell what I make, just as music is licensed when a copy is recorded. I wonder why people who win awards at quilt shows with patterns and fabrics from other people aren’t required to split their earnings? It seems like that is the logical conclusion.

    I am not saying I don’t agree with you–I’ve turned down all my friends who have asked for this reason, that I didn’t think the law was on my side, and I was right–but I think applying music copyright law to quilting (or many other industries), which has always borrowed freely and improvised freely from huge and diverse areas, to be troubling, and getting away from the whole basic quilting history of borrowing and adapting. For example, if the original log cabin style and all its riffs and variations were to be transplanted to today, I would hate to think what would happen. Would the person who decided to switch the orientation of the blocks be sued by the woman who came up with the original pattern for stealing someone else’s ideas? What about altering which side is light or dark? WHat about all these modern quilts that clearly improvise from the Gee’s Bend styles?

    1. There’s a difference between being inspired by and copying directly. What we’re talking about is directly copying from a published pattern. The improvisational piecing you refer to with Gee’s Bend is not exclusive to them and they weren’t published patterns. It’s a genre not a pattern. Similarly, log cabin is in the public domain. Granted there has been a tradition of sharing patterns and many people use that as justification for borrowing the designs of others. If you’re not looking to make money off of the work of others then it’s not a problem. I don’t want to argue legalities here but I’m just clarifying to people that when a pattern says “for personal use only” that means that you have not paid for any use other than personal use. When we or anyone else sells a pattern for commercial use it’s not for $12.

  11. Thanks for the quick explanation, and I look forward to reading your future post about this topic. This whole discussion kind of takes some of the fun out of quilting. Even if we make a quilt of our own design, there’s always the chance that someone else might have already made one like it before and we could get in trouble – after all,there’s only so many ways to arrange fabric shapes… What a can of worms we’ve opened…

    1. Actually Kathy I’ve decided not to write a post about it. Here’s why: it makes people mad. People don’t like to be told “No” no matter how nicely and reasonably you try to tell them. And they shoot the messenger. As you said, “It takes some of the fun out of quilting.” When we try to explain that if we don’t get paid we can’t continue to stay in business, everyone thinks, “But it’s just one pattern. It’s only me. It’s just a quilt here and there. No big deal.” You can see from some of the comments here and elsewhere that even if it’s not legal, many people feel that they should be able to profit from the work of others. Talk about taking some of the fun out of quilting?! Reading comments about why it should be OK for someone else to profit from patterns we develop is very discouraging. So I’m not otouching this topic again.

  12. I think the biggest part of this problem has been due to Kate going in ‘all guns a blazing’.
    If she had handled this gently then there probably wouldn’t have been issue.

    I bought the book…..and I’ll continue to buy C&T books.

    I won’t ever be buying Kate’s fabric in the future.

    1. That was the point of my post. She was looking for ill intent where there wasn’t any.

  13. Thank you for your explanation. This is a topic I know little about, and was just trying to learn more about it, and you’ve done a great job of educating me, and other readers as well. I sincerely appreciate your honest approach, and admire your work immensely. Thank you.

    1. Kathy,
      Fair Use covers the reproduction of an image for scholarship, criticism and educational purposes. It means that if you’re doing a lecture on modern quilting and you use an image of our quilts, that’s OK. It does not mean that you are able to use someone else’s work for profit. Otherwise there would be no copyright law at all because everyone would claim fair use.

  14. Weeks, I just discovered this discussion and read it all at once. I am sorry that you feel people here are getting mad, “shooting the messenger,” and justifying their desire to profit from your work (4-8-12). It seems to me that your fans are sympathetic and trying hard to understand a complex subject, and that the discussion was civil and informative. Perhaps you will reconsider your decision not to post on this subject in the future. It is clear that your grasp of the relevant information and your perspective as a businessperson are useful if we are going to do more than rant, rave, and sue.

    I do believe retail fabric is in a different category than patterns, books, and production quilts. If fabric designers don’t believe they are getting enough for their designs (12-20 cents/yard), they need to take this up with the fabric manufacturers, not try to extort a cut from those who buy and use their products. Additionally, why produce fabric “lines” if quilters aren’t allowed to use these fabrics together? I will certainly think twice before purchasing designer fabrics in the future (unintended consequences) and boycott those who are poised to sue their customers. Time to join the “solids revolution” you and Bill are promoting!

    Finally, if companies truly are “knocking off” your designs as you allege, don’t you have the responsibility to make that reasonable call or send that reasonable letter, rather than turning away and “seeing no evil”? Sometimes people need object lessons. If there are no consequences for stealing, there is going to be more stealing.

  15. Mary,
    I’ll try to address your comments one by one and it will take 2 comments because there’s a lot to cover. Sadly I don’t think that people really want to hear relevant information. I think they want to do what they want to do and not have anyone tell them that it’s not right. Trust me. We’ve been dealing with this for 13 yrs. I’ve tried just to reasonably explain things before. It is not well received.

    As for the pay scale, it’s simply supply and demand: too many aspiring fabric designers are willing to work for nothing to get a line so if you ask for more money, you’re liable to lose your line. One of the hottest designers out there right now is working for 10 cents/yd because she knows that the manufacturer won’t give her more.

  16. Mary (cont’d)
    I agree that fabric and patterns are different but as I said, not everyone is reasonable.

    Lastly, we have gone after some who have knocked us off but it’s complicated. We’re in Chicago. If someone who lives in Texas knocks us off, we have to hire a lawyer in Texas and file suit in Texas and deal with it in Texas, which is prohibitively expensive. We’ve sent emails explaining that someone’s design is identical to ours and they won’t acknowledge it. One person who knocked off our Outside the Box pattern turned some of the boxes upside down because we busted her but she’s still out there selling the pattern and there’s not much we can do about it. We just can’t afford to sue everyone who knocks us off.

  17. Mary (one last comment)
    The comments that make me weary of posting about this are the “why can’t I take your design and sell it to my client?” and arguing about the intent of the Fair Use Doctrine comments. Bill and I work 70-80 hrs/wk each not because we’re workaholics but because that’s how hard you have to work in this economy in a low-paying profession. So I don’t have any interest in taking time away from work to try to convince people to do the right thing. This is common sense. If you didn’t design it, it doesn’t belong to you and you shouldn’t be trying to profit from it. Everyone wants to look for loopholes (Fair Use Doctrine) when really it’s simple: Don’t try to profit from the work of others.

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