DISCLAIMER: This article is in no way written with the intention of being, nor should it be misconstrued as, legal advice and I will not be held liable for or assume any responsibility for any consequences (negative or positive) that result from following the guidelines that follow. I strongly recommend that you supplement your research with your local copyright office and I encourage you to visit a copyright lawyer for your questions or issues with copyright and the associated laws rather than reading this or any other blog discussing copyright. It may not be 100% correct or complete. Do not pursue any percieved copyright infringements or attempt to obtain a copyright without consulting a lawyer who specializes in this area or your copyright office. Please know your rights. This is to serve as a set of guidelines only.
What Copyright is
According to the United States Copyright Office, "Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of 'original works of authorship,' including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works." Certainly every country has their own copyright laws, but they are different only in very minor and technical ways, and so the general Copyright laws in your home country will more or less apply in any other with little variation.
It is important to note that copyright doesn't protect ideas as they exist in somoene's head or that have been verbally indicated. No one can sue for copyright infringement for simply thinking of something before someone else. Copyright protects "un/published ideas" meaning books, film, songs, poetry, artworks (to include quilts), patterns, magazines, articles, etc - the ideas become protected when they have been put down on paper (or in the case of music, written and then played) and it is through the media that the idea becomes property and protected by law. If something has been in progress and there is evidence to support the work, and it has not yet been formally published, it is still protected and this what is meant by "unpublished" works.
What are the benefits of a Copyright, either formal or implied?
A copyright holder reserves the exclusive right to make and distribute copies of their patterns privately or publicly, to make unlimited number of quilts of their pattern or derived from their pattern, to sell or lend patterns and projects made from their pattern and to publicly display their quilt as an original piece from an original pattern. A formal copyright also enables the holder to more effectively pursue legal course if their pattern is reproduced, stolen or a piece made from their design that isn't attributed to them, should they choose to do so.
Securing a Copyright
Accoring to the United States Copyright Office, once a work has been created, it is protected under copyright law and it is not required to seek a formal registration with the Copyright Office. The date of creation is understood to be the date of the first copy or recording of the work. Also, it is no longer required to put a notice of copyright on the work (you know, ©) as of 3/1/1989 since copyright is to be understood at point of creation. However it, is beneficial to always put the symbol on there because it lets people know that your design is copyrighted as of a certain year. You may find additional information on the ins and outs of US Copyright law and the process of securing a copyright in the United States by clicking on the link above. Go to page 7 for information on securing a copyright here - for your country, check your government's website for more information.
Guidelines for Quilter's Copyright
First off, let's define a couple terms that are more pertinent to the quilting world:
Copyright Infringement is "...when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner" (US Copyright Office - click for more copyright definitions).
Open/Public Domain is a work that is no longer protected by copyright. A copyright of an authored, published pattern or book, as of 2005, lasts the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. If the pattern/book is anonymous, then it lasts either 95 years after the first publishing, or 120 years after it's first creation whichever is earlier. A pattern or book published before 1928, due to changes in the law, is now public domain and may be sold copied or shared freely by anyone. (David Allen Hall, Ph.D., Registered Patent Attorney via Quilter's Copyright FAQ).
Fair Use describes copies or pictures taken that are strictly relegated to class use only, re-sizing of templates, pictures taken for magazine/newspaper/newsletter articles, all of which give credit to the author of the pattern or designer of the quilt as necessary (US Copyright Office on Fair Use)
* If a pattern is out of print, that does not legally enable you to make a copy. The right to re-publish rests with the author or whoever owns the copyright, be it living relatives of the author (if the author is deceased) or a publishing company.
* If you have a photocopied pattern that says nothing about copyright, it is still protected; you cannot make and distribute copies of the photocopy. It sounds nit-picky, I know. But the original pattern it was copied from was protected, and so too is the copy. It cannot be redistributed.
* If you want copies of a pattern, or a pattern from a book for whatever reason, you can contact the author or publishing company (preferrably in writing to keep a record) to discuss obtaining a copy. Sometimes they will give you verbal or written consent to copy the pattern. If given permission, you must attribute the pattern to the author. However, sometimes they will not give you permission, and if that is the case, your only other legal route to obtain several copies of the pattern is to purchase them.
* Traditional quilting blocks and patterns (such as an Irish Chain, Lone Star or Log Cabin) are not protected under copyright as they predate 1928 in most cases and there is no ownership of the design - they are too old for anyone to know where they came from exactly and who recieves credit for them. However, if a pattern is written with pictures and instructions for a quilt using those blocks, the pattern itself, not the design, is protected. You can still make those blocks to your heart's content, but you cannot copy that pattern to make them without giving due credit.
* You may photocopy portions of a pattern to re-size or to write on to keep the original in good condition. That is completely permissable under Fair Use policies.
* Charities do not have exemptions to copyright law. If you want to copy and distribute a pattern for use in charities quilting, you must contact the designer for permission. They likely will not allow you to make that many copies, but they may give you a discounted rate on the patterns. Be sure to ask.
* Taking a picture of a quilt and "figuring it out yourself" rather than buying the pattern is a form of copyright infringement. Because that quilt exists, someone had to create that arrangement of blocks and figure out the process to get it done, making it a piece of creative/intellectual property which becomes even more pronounced if the pattern is published. This is the reason why most quilt shops do not allow pictures of their quilts to be taken unless you have purchased the pattern - they are protecting you, the designer and the store from copyright issues.
* Taking pictures of display quilts without a store's permission is copyright infringement. Even if there is no sign that says "No Pictures," it is understood that taking pictures is on a permission only basis due to copyright laws. Always ask first, and if they say no, do not sneak a picture anyway.
* You can use another quilt for inspiration, but to avoid copyright infringement you must change more than the colors (unless you are using a pattern for which the iniration quilt is a sample). You must change at least 30% to avoid a possible copyright issue. This could be size, block arrangement, block type, border style etc.
* Even if there is no copyright symbol on the pattern, it is still understood to be protected by copyright law.
Even free patterns have a disclaimer that they are for individual use only and not for resale, meaning you cannot credit the pattern as your own.
* If you make a pattern and distribute it, it is not necessary to legally register the pattern with the copyright office. Putting "Copyright [your name]" is sufficient enough to let people know that pattern is your creative property. However, registering your pattern with the copyright office makes it easier to take legal action in the circumstance that your pattern is stolen.
* Class instructions and notes are also protected under copyright and should not be reproduced without the consent of the person, be it the teacher or an outside source.
I know this all seems to fly in the face of the long held quilting tradition of sharing, and it's true, it does. We live in a world now where formally transmitted ideas are legally recognized as creative/intellectual property and money can be made from them. These need to be protected so that the person who put the work into creating the quilt is the one who financially benefits from it and that they are the one who recieve the recognition. That being said, if you do make a physical copy here and there, it is very likely indeed that you won't get caught, and in the broad scheme of things is not a tremendous deal.
It is here, on the Internet, that it isvery possible that - along with the myriad other privacy and publishing issues the Internet can bring - that you could get yourself into trouble for copying patterns and posting them for free, for copying a published quilt and acknowledging you didn't purchase the pattern but rather "figured it out yourself" without giving credit or for crediting a quilt made from a pattern as your own. The Internet has made copyrighting and therefore copyright infringement more confusing, faster and easier than ever, especially easier to do so without being aware of it and that's why it is advisable to exercise caution and be knowledgeable about copyright law. People can, and do sue over this kind of thing. I find myself at the core in agreement with Paul Rapp, a lawyer who was faced with a quilting copyright sort of suit -
read his discussion here. Most minor infrigements aren't worth the time and money spent in a lawsuit, and so they slide. It is the frequent, large scale or blatant rip-offs that get pursued.
The idea behind the copyright laws and the copyright infringement suits is the not-unreasonable idea that copyright infringement is damaging to everyone involved. On a lofty moral ground, it is argued that copyright infringement is akin to stealing - you wouldn't walk in to your local quilt store, grab a pattern from the wall and walk out without paying for it. To photocopy, hand-copy or take a photo of an original quilt or design from a pattern without purchasing the pattern or gaining expressed permission from the author/designer is essentially the same thing. As I research it more, it was presented time and time again to put it in perspective this way: think about how you would feel if you put all of the time and money in to making and selling a pattern only to find out that people were making it without paying for the instructions you published, or if they copied the quilt and are taking credit as their own - I don't know about you, but I know I would be both hurt and furious on principle alone. On the practical and financial side of things, the point was repeatedly made that a lot of money and time goes in to publishing a pattern and that avenue of design is someone's livelihood - usiing it without permission or without purchace is harming their sales and their livelihood. After some consideration, it helped me to think about in this paradigm: If you buy a pattern for $9, and make copies of it to give to your six friends, that is $54 dollars less whatever the publishing comany takes that the designer won't see. Multiply that by an indeterminite number of groups doing the same thing and that patternmaker is losing thousands of dollars. Thaat doesn't sound like a huge deal but when you consider that this is what this person does for a living, and some patterns do well and others don't, plus the publishing charges etc, they're not making much to begin with.
I hope these guidelines have made copyrights in the quilting world a little bit clearer. Again, before securing a copyright or pursuing any percieved copyright infringement with legal action, I strongly encourage you to contact a patent or copyright lawyer to learn what the circumstances really are and what your course of action should be.
Sources and Additional Research
United States Copyright Office
Red Dawn Quilting Copyright
Palm Beach Quilter's Guild Copyright Notice
Quilting Copyright FAQ
Lillian's Cupboard discusses Copyright Law
Fidalgo Island Quilter's Copyright for Quilters
Copyrighting your Quilt
Copyrights, Licenses and Quilting
Quilting Business' Quilting Copyrights and Licenses