Lawsuits and Quilters

My friend Rhonda sent me news of this latest scuffle involving quilters and the law, as a follow-up to my post about Pinterest.

I’m piecing this together (no pun intended) by reading the blogs of the two women involved: Emily Cier, of Carolina Patchworks and Kate Spain.  As I understand it, Moda sent Emily some of Kate Spain’s fabric to use in a quilt, which she did, and put it in her book.

As a side light, a tote bag was made to publicize the book (shown above in a screenshot from Amazon).  This particular screen shot was right above another shot of other quilters having their own totes as well (shown below).

Emily Cier received one of those very cheerful cease and desist letters, which basically puts the fear of God into you, if you’ve ever received one.  They are very effective.  She blogged about it.

Then Kate Spain, whose fabric is shown on the tote, blogged about her side of it too.  She gave an little illustration of how copyright works, encouraged others to continue using her fabric and tried to soothe the populace.  But we live in a digital, trigger-happy world, and I must admit some of the comments made me cringe.

But others had a legitimate question: if they create using Spain’s fabrics and that fabric is shown in books and on patterns, will they be sued as well?  I read through all the comments and didn’t see a response to that, but it was made clear once one commenter provided a link to Amazon and the tote bag.

And, then Emily followed up with a response.

I see the difference between the two issues–and if I were Kate Spain, I’d probably jump around too–but then does that mean that we can only use our own fabrics if, by chance, we become well-known enough (as in Emily’s case) to publish a book and want a promotional tote made to publicize our book? Somehow I don’t think Emily meant to appropriate Spain’s fabric designs, but instead was happy to have her quilt publicized on a tote.

In both cases–the Pinterest issue that I raised earlier and this one–it seem to me that copyright laws are at the core.  Many commented that the threat of lawsuits had disrupted their “pinning” habit, and they were a bit irked. (Agreed. However I do wish there were a way for Pinterest to “poke” or ping me when one of my images was being used.  Before I had a Pinterest account, there were no notifications whatsoever.)  And like one of my commentors, I’ve been frustrated by the amount of quilt designs that I once thought were in the public domain, being licensed and appropriated for a quilter’s business.  I remember even being disgusted when another icon of the blogging age, The Pioneer Woman, claimed the recipe for Texas Sheet Cake — which has been in my recipe file for about a century — as “her” buttermilk-chocolate cake recipe.  (I kind of stopped reading her after that.)

Will we as quilters be bound by the tangle of copyright laws that seem ambiguous as best, and harmful to the creative process, at their worst?  What do you think? Do threats of cease and desist lawsuits ever cross your mind when you make up a new quilt?  Do you think that all of us quilters are scrapping for the same slice of pie?  Or is it, as one quilter charged on Spain’s blog:

This situation is, I believe, the result of a designer who sells fabric, but is not a quilter and does not understand the process of creating quilts. A quilt is not a tea towel, paper napkin or plate. The implications for every quilt book, magazine or pattern published is simply staggering. The quilting community needs to take note of this issue.

In other words, who do you think “owns” that image on the tote bag: the fabric designer, or the quilt artist?