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Once it’s created, it’s copyrighted

Last week a post popped up in my Facebook feed that dealt with copyright.

A textile artist discovered that her original work had “inspired” someone to create a nearly identical piece of art. The copier thought that if she gave credit to the art’s originator at some point, it was okay. She did credit the original artist in a blog post. She also thought it was okay to enter her work into a contest. Well it’s not okay in either instance.

Late last year one of my pattern design clients shared that someone had created a nearly identical quilt to hers and was selling patterns. Again, the copier was inspired and didn’t see the harm in what she was doing.

In both these cases, the copiers infringed on copyright. They didn’t have the rights to make a copy. In neither case did the infringer even ask permission.

Unfortunately this topic comes up on a regular basis.

I think a part of this a matter of education. For some reason, people don’t seem to get copyright when it comes to crafts. Because our industry has always had a sharing nature, many people think everything should be shared. And, this becomes easier with the Internet. And, it is, in many, many cases, illegal.

I always say that the basics of copyright are simple: if you don’t own the copyright, you don’t have the right to copy. And, basically everything created privately has a copyright, whether it is registered or not.

Many people think copyright is about the loss of income to the artist. While copyright theft can have an impact on the artist’s income, It’s really about who decides what happens to your work. You, as the copyright owner, are the only one who can decide if and how it can be copied, adapted and distributed. And distribution technically includes being shown.

Of course, copyright is more involved than that, and I think when faced with any question about copyright, your first step is to ask who owns the copyright.

What if you don’t know who owns the copyright? 

If the copyright was registered before 1978, the Copyright Office staff can search its records for you for a minimum fee of $400. If you are in Washington, DC, you can do this search at the Copyright Office without a charge. If the copyright was registered from 1978 to present, you can search online at the Copyright Office Website for the records.

How do you tell if a work is still subject to copyright? 

For the most part, if the work was created after Jan. 1, 1978, the copyright is in effect for the life of the creator plus 70 years. If the work was created prior to Jan. 1, 1978, copyright protection varies and the specifics are rather complex. You can read the details in various circulars from the Copyright Office Website. Here are just a few points. If the copyright was in effect before Jan. 1, 1964, it needed to be renewed during its 28th year of the first term of its copyright and then it maintained protection for a full 95-year term. If a work was not published or registered before Jan. 1, 1978, it entered the public domain on Jan. 1, 2003 (unless publication took place by Dec. 31, 2002). And, virtually all of the work published before 1923 is in the public domain. Here’s a link to a chart on the Cornell University Websiteshowing copyright terms and public domain.

To learn more about copyright, here’s a link to the US Copyright Office Website. If you have specific questions about copyright, be sure to consult an attorney for clarification. Also, ICAP members have access to an intellectual property attorney for copyright concerns.

Some years back I also discovered a graphic that outlines copyright guidelines that may answer some of your questions. The graphic was created by polymer artist Ginger Davis Allman. You can see it here.

While the concepts are the same, my resources refer to US Copyright. For Canadians, Kathy Bissett maintains information on copyright in that country: http://www.kathleenbissett.com/copyright.html. And, for Australians, Brenda Gael Smith maintains a list of resources for that country: http://www.brendagaelsmith.com/resources/copyright/

If you are an artist, take time to educate your buyers and clients about copyright. If you’re a teacher or pattern designer, do the same. Include a copyright symbol with your work.

If we all continue to educate the public, then perhaps we’ll make a dent in the problem.

It’s your turn!

How have you dealt with copyright infringement with your work?

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4 Responses to “Once it’s created, it’s copyrighted”


  1. Shannon Melius said:

    I would highlight that as you said:
    “And, basically everything created privately has a copyright, whether it is registered or not.“
    You will not find unregistered copyrighted material at the copyright office website. That is more likely where you may find a work that is similar to yours that could potentially infringe someone’s copyright. But simply, if you are copying something you saw, get the copyright owners permission or simply don’t do it. There are certainly exceptions to this for common quilt block patterns. If you are unsure, contact an intellectual property attorney or design your own that is different. That is more fun anyway.


  2. Morna said:

    Thanks, Shannon, for adding to the conversation. As you say, it’s more fun to create your own design.


  3. Bunnie Cleland said:

    I just had someone reproduce my Triangle Frenzy designs in a modern quilt. They were instantly recognizable, and she acknowleges they came from me. Luckily,they had problems, and I was able to collaborate to protect the integrity of my designs, and thus I encouraged my trademarked name to be used on the design, with my name as “Inspired by”
    I don’t think any of the people working on the quilt saw it as a copyright infringement. Since they were all friends, they saw it as imitation as a form of flattery. I plan to write the quilt pattern, so it was a good thing overall.


  4. Morna said:

    Bunnie, I’m glad this had a good ending for you. It’s very frustrating to put the effort and your design skills/knowledge into something and see this happen. And, of course, you have to be so vigilant to protect your IP.

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