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What Is Copyright All About?

Copyright for Morna

In the past few months I’ve heard from several teachers and pattern designers about problems with copyright issues. In a couple of the instances, students were copying the design and sharing the design with friends. Yes, we will continue to have this problem. I think it’s a matter of education. For some reason, people don’t seem to get it 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’s, in 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. 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 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 theCopyright 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 Website showing 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, IAPQ members have access to an intellectual property attorney for copyright concerns.

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

Please share your thoughts and experiences on copyright below.


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8 Responses to “What Is Copyright All About?”

  1. Brenda Miller said:

    Hi Morna,
    The best article on copyright that I have come across is by Kathleen Bissett. You’ll find it at
    She is a designer that lives in my locality and is the mother of a lawyer. Although the article deals with Canadian copyright law it would be very similar in understanding to US law. There are some helpful links at the bottom of the page. This article can be reproduced with permission.
    Kathleen is always available to speak about copyright.

  2. Morna said:

    Brenda, Thanks for sharing Kathy’s page. It’s a great reference. Unfortunately, she’s confronted it numerous times. Fortunately, it gives people real life examples of what can happen and how to handle it.

  3. Andrea Funk said:

    I have had people and other companies copy and paste parts of my website into their website. I get so mad! I have worked hard and then these lazy people take my work so they don’t have to do any work. I actively go after these websites and have them taken down. It’s expensive. Then the bad guys just change a few words and are allowed back up. Gurrrrrr.

  4. Morna said:

    Andrea, Thanks for sharing this. It’s annoying and, as you note, costly to go after these people. Yet protecting your copyright is important. I’m guessing you have trademark problems, too. Vigilance and education on our end never ends.

  5. L.F. Deans said:

    I am an artist as well as a quilter. In my painting classes many students use pictures from magazines for studying painting. Many of them sell their paintings which are copies of other peoples’ photographs or paintings. They give credit for paintings, but not photos. I think many people think that because they are not well known in the art world or live in small towns, that they can get away with this. I think that this is an attitude that persists in our quilting world when people take part in craft shows or carry on home businesses on a small scale. I think this attitude should be addressed by quilting teachers and other teachers of the creative arts.

  6. Morna said:

    Lucinda, Thanks for your comments. You’re right about it persisting in the quilt world and education is the answer. I know many teachers who routinely talk about copyright in their classes and lectures. You have to wonder if they are reaching a big enough audience with the message.

  7. Brenda Gael Smith said:

    I agree that education is central to this issue. Over the past few years, I have seen increased awareness about proper attribution of work but this is not, of itself, enough. As you have highlighted, the copyright holder has the exclusive right to control whether and how their work is circulated in the public sphere.

    As a teacher, and a lawyer in my previous life, I always make it clear to my students that they are welcome to share the techniques with others but my handouts and patterns are for their personal use only.

    I maintain a listing of useful copyright resources on my website at
    This listing includes an article on Quilt Show Photography and Online Sharing Guidelines and links to sample cease and desist letters that I found helpful last year when I was dealing with an Australian enterprise that was using an image of one of my distinctive improvisational quilts as a background to a wide range of promotional materials in online and print media, without my consent and without any attribution. That matter was resolved satisfactorily through a combination of direct telephone contact and formal correspondence.

  8. Morna said:

    Brenda, Thanks for sharing those additional resources. You’re right about increased awareness as respects attribution. Maybe someday it won’t be the problem it continues to be if we all continue to do our part.

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