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Copyright Basics

Earlier this year, I attended a lecture and the quilt artist, in the course of showing her work, displayed the greeting card that inspired one particular piece. She had photocopied the card, enlarged it and then made a pattern for her work. I could see no discernible difference between the card and her work. Someone from the audience inquired as to whether or not that was a copyright violation. Rightly, the artist said that yes it was. She went on to explain that she had done this when she didn’t understand copyright. Today her work is inspired by her surroundings and she does her own original work, either from her own drawings or photographs. I’m glad someone asked her about copyright, but she missed a great opportunity to teach her audience the basics by bringing it up in the first place.

I want to share another situation. Years ago at a guild meeting, one member made a presentation on copyright and how it applied to quilters. It was thoughtful, and she covered the basics and more. She summed the presentation up by passing out copies of an article she had photocopied about copyright. Do you think she missed the point?

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. Many people think copyright is about the loss of income to the artist. 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. 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 $330. 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 Web site 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 Web site.  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 Web site showing copyright terms and public domain.

To learn more about copyright, here’s a link to the US Copyright Office web site . If you have specific questions about copyright, be sure to consult an attorney for clarification. Also, IAPQ members have access to an intellectual property attorney for copyright concerns.
The International Association of Professional Quilters offers resources and networking opportunities for you to create a success from your quilting business. Learn about all the benefits of IAPQ membership here.


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2 Responses to “Copyright Basics”

  1. Nanette Zeller said:

    Hi Morna,
    This is a timely post for me. This weekend I took a class and was admiring a bag that one of the students made. I asked if she made it from a pattern and she said yes and offered to bring me a copy of the pattern. I kept telling her no, until she suggested that it might be wrong to copy the pattern. I said it was and told her that the woman writing was trying to make a living selling the pattern. She insisted, but I’m not selling the bags? Again, I rephrased it again, she’s trying to make a living selling the patterns and your giving her patterns away for free. I saw a light bulb. During these difficult financial times, understanding that their infringing on someone’s financial situation, may make them re-think the violation. Will it change her practice of copying? I don’t know, but maybe it will make her think.

  2. Morna said:

    Hi Nanette,
    Seems to be a battle we constantly wage. If we get one person to understand and think about the consequences, maybe she’ll take up the torch with others.

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