Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sharing your knowledge, for fun and/or profit

A couple of people commented on my recent post that "your technique is safe -- nobody will copy you."  I responded that being copied is something I never worry about.  I like to share my techniques, and even if somebody picks up the technique verbatim, they're not going to do the same thing with it that I do.  I'm not alone in this feeling -- the quilt world is full of teachers, authors and bloggers who teach techniques and show others how to improve their skills, for money or not.

The world is also full of people who seem to be ambivalent about sharing their knowledge and ideas.  Such as:
  • somebody who exhibits her work publicly, posts photos to her website and shows her work to others yet prominently slaps a copyright on it and becomes agitated at the very thought of other people glomming onto an idea and using it in their own work
  • somebody who agonizes about how much to charge a charity to use an image of her work on a fundraising brochure, or how much to charge if a local business club wants her to come give a lecture
  • somebody who enters her quilts in a big show, knowing they will be seen by thousands of visitors, yet worries about how she can prevent them from taking and showing photos of her work
  • somebody who teaches a class in something as generic as "translating your ideas into quilts" and demands that another teacher stop giving her own class using a remotely similar title.
In my past life of paid employment, I worked for a time in corporate public relations, an activity whose entire purpose is to get people to think better of you by behaving in commendable ways.  My company was a consulting firm that sold advice to companies -- but we also gave away a great deal of advice in small bits and pieces.  We published newsletters and booklets explaining important issues, and distributed them free to tens of thousands of clients and other companies.  Our standard copyright notice read "you are welcome to quote from this publication, with credit given to our company."  We scrambled to find speaking opportunities for our best consultants, where they could provide advice to anybody in the audience; not only did they speak for nothing, we happily paid their way.

The advice we gave away, of course, was intended to be like the free dose of dope that drug dealers give to unsuspecting rubes -- just enough to get you hooked.  With any luck, people in the audience would be impressed by the free advice and think it might be valuable to buy a larger package.   And it worked, well enough to make a lot of money for the company and pay my salary for 20 years.

Now some fiber artists who have read this far might jump up and say, "That may work for a big company but it won't work for me!  I'm a very small operation and I can't afford even the remote possibility of losing some potential revenue."  I would say you are never too small an operation to be smart about your reputation.

So, for instance, should you give a free speech to the business club?  Yes, you might be able to charge a quilt guild $200 to give a similar speech, but quite frankly, the business club is more likely to offer networking possibilities worth a lot more than $200.  Members might buy or commission quilts from you, or put you in touch with a gallery or company who would like to give you an exhibit.

And should you get incensed because the proprietors of a quilt show permit photography? Yes, there's a remote possibility that somebody might take a picture of your quilt and put it on a coffee mug and sell the mug for $10 and you wouldn't get a penny of it.  But what's the alternative?  It's not like coffee mug manufacturers would otherwise come beat down your door for that image.  And there's always the possibility that somebody might take a picture of your quilt, love it, show it around to her guild at home, and you could get a teaching or speaking gig out of the deal.  I suspect the upside from that possibility is much larger than the potential downside of lost coffee-mug royalties.

And, for instance, should you try to vigorously protect a workshop you have developed?  Yes, it's serious if somebody takes your class, recopies your patterns and notes and teaches the same class.  But it's ridiculous to think you can own the very broad concept of translating ideas into artwork (isn't that what every workshop is, reduced to its essentials?), and by trying to do so you just look unrealistic and silly.

And, for instance, should you get upset if you show your work to other people and they get an idea from it?  You could, but isn't it much more gracious -- and realistic -- to simply take it as a compliment? 

I happen to believe that if you cast your bread upon the waters it will come back to you many times over, while if you are mean with your knowledge that will come back to you as well.  You may well get a better reputation out of being generous with your knowledge than by being stingy with it.  Or if you do want to keep a secret, then don't let your work out in public.

If anybody wants to take any of my techniques or designs as inspiration for a quilt, then go for it!!  I would be proud and thrilled, even if I didn't know about it.  If you wanted to mention my name while bragging on your work, that would be nice, but not necessary.  You would know, and that would be enough for me.


  1. Well said! Thank you for another well presented article.

    If there is a copyright notice on patterns, a lot of times all you have to do is ask if you can sell it/raffle it etc providing you are not going to mass produce. Most of us use a copyright notice in the hope of warning off the leeches in this world rather than stopping genuine people using our designs, ideas and techniques.

    Judy B

  2. I agree Kathy. I recently met someone here in my neck of the woods who put a copyright on a workshop for choosing images and color. Crazy! ...and just for the record, I could only hope to pick up your technique and produce something that looks like a Kathy Loomis piece. That would be my lucky day!

  3. Another terrific article! And a big congratulations for your Best in Show at Quilts=Art=Quilts!

  4. I agree with you. I like to think of it as they are only taking what I did yesterday. No one can take what I am doing tomorrow. People who copy me are a step behind me.

  5. I did try your postage stamp technique and I linked to you! And I totally agree with you. You get back what you give and more.

  6. WOW --- your Memorial Day is astounding. Fantastic!

  7. So many good points in this and previous posts. As artists, and human beings, we have more potential for influence (and profit) if we are reasonable about what we give/take than if we are paranoid/greedy.

  8. Eloquent! so thrilled to find a like minded generous spirit... and all those who commented in the affirmative.