Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Permission granted -- or maybe not

A couple of years ago I taught a class in fine line piecing in Boston, after which one of the students, G. Wong, made a couple of quite large quilts using that technique.  She wrote me last year to ask permission to enter her quilts in a show, and then wrote again last week to tell me that one of those quilts won three ribbons at the Vermont Quilt Festival in June.

G. Wong, Going on a Trip 2

And she wanted permission again, to enter the Road to California show.  I responded to her email immediately and said "I'd be happy for you to exhibit any of your fine lines quilts at Road to California, or anywhere else.  I don't feel that I own this technique any more than any other teacher "owns" whatever she teaches."

Then I looked up the new show rules and had second thoughts -- not about giving her permission, but about being asked to give permission.  Apparently this big show has changed its rules, redefining categories and including a strict new "copyright release" form.

I'd like to think that these new rules will crack down on the indiscriminate copying of other people's photos or paintings into quilt format, practices which have bothered me in the past.  However, I suspect that for every copycat work that doesn't get entered in Road to California, at least one will come up with enough paperwork to do so anyway.  (I am not so much bothered by copying photos without permission as I am by copying photos period.)

What does bother me about the new rules is not the first paragraph, which reads "If you use the designs, photography, art, pattern or quilt created by another person as the source of your design, you must obtain that individual's written permission....  This applies whether you have copied, altered, or used only a portion of the design."

OK so far -- but then the second paragraph says "This is considered derivative work, which by definition is 'something that is based on another source' and 'imitative of the work of another person.' Designs are considered intellectual property and are covered under the copyright laws of the United States."

Now think for a minute, and show me any painting ever displayed in any museum, or any quilt ever displayed in any quilt show, that isn't "based on another source."

After I thought about this for a while I wrote my student back again and told her "I don't think your quilts in any way infringe on my copyright.  I don't believe that you can copyright an idea, and you certainly have not used my designs, photography, art, pattern or quilt in making yours.  I also don't believe that their definition of derivative work is helpful in this situation, as just about every quilt ever made is based on another source.  I don't consider the fine line piecing technique to be my intellectual property and would never dream of suing you.

In the interests of protecting artists' rights I would prefer that you not sign the copyright release, since I do not believe you are infringing upon my copyright or that I have any potential legal claim.  I think you should check the "maker's original design" box on the form.

I understand you may be hesitant to follow my preference, since the show organizers have defined "copyright" so broadly, in which case feel free to submit my earlier email if you are asked for it.  But if you're feeling feisty then I encourage you to submit this as an original design, which I believe it is."

I wonder what effect these new rules will have on the quality of work in the Road to California show.  Will it cut down on the quilts that simply copy a photo?  Will it cut down on quilts made from patterns or copied from somebody else's quilt?

And I especially wonder how other teachers will respond when their former students or the purchasers of their book ask for permission to enter a quilt made with those ideas.  Will they ask to see a photo of the quilt to see whether it's a slavish copy or just a vague sorta-copy?  Will they deny permission?  (And if so, will they announce that fact far enough in advance for people to not attend the workshop or get their money back?)  Will they charge for permission?  Will they hold their former students and readers in artistic indentured servitude for years or decades?

Perhaps I'm being too pessimistic.  And I'm not sure what motivation is behind the new Road to California rules, or what they're trying to weed out.  But I'll check on the winners when they're announced in January and see whether the rules have delivered an excellent crop of work, or just more of the same-old, same-old.

What do you think?  


  1. Yes, art is by its nature derivative. We can only create within the context of our lives and experience. No one starts with a blank slate. I do understand the attempt to set parameters but I don't think this will be very successful in doing what they want, partly because they haven't explained (in the text you've included) WHAT it is they are trying to accomplish. MQG recently went through this process and then backtracked. I didn't follow how that controversy ended.

  2. They are taking themselves WAY to seriously. What if no one could have expanded on Picasso's cubism?

  3. What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.

    Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
    It has been already
    in the ages before us.

    There is no remembrance of former things,
    nor will there be any remembrance
    of later things yet to be among those who come after.
    Ecclesiastes 1

  4. This link may answer:)


  5. Sounds like it is the technique, not the design, that she has used.
    and by your understanding, is this restricted by Road to California's new rules?

  6. That IS pretty broad! Those umpteen bazillion "Susanna and the Elders" paintings would have been right out under those rules. LOL Rubens or not! All of my art history classes showed derivative work that was made 'new' with a different approach on the same subject.

    Sometimes though, technique can be very unique - an artists 'signature' if you will. For example, if one were to walk up to her 'fine lines' quilt and mistake it for yours (because you have made it such a signature of your oeuvre) then that could very well be a problem. Especially if you are known for that (through gallery shows, sales, juried exhibitions, etc), and everyone knows she took your class. INO, that is derivative. By hers being mistaken for yours, IMO it shows a lack of artistic vision or expression that would sufficiently transform the work from derivative to unique. (This is just an example and not anything that happened.)

    So the question ends up being: how is the artist to express their own voice, recognizably, even though they are using techniques made famous by another artist? It is possible to do, but "I'll know it when I see it" is very hard to write rules around.

    I too get tired of seeing quilts that I recognize as patterns (or heaven help us, kits), being claimed as original work. Or I can just look at it and say "oh, she took Quilt Teacher's class and that's her class project." Learning a technique is fine, but I think it's important to move beyond that to express your own vision.

    I don't know how to write a rule for that though.

  7. We all need a starting point, but the final outcome needs to show more than the same: the final work needs to show the significant difference we have made. The new work needs to show enough of a difference to make it a distinct stand-alone work even though with an obvious nod to its stimulus.

    Your post goes to show why we need lawyers, and how they earn their keep. Writing rules and requirements is no easy task! Have you thought of providing a service? You would be brilliant at it.

  8. Worrying about whether I am making an "original" or inadvertently breaching someone's copyright has been worrying me for several years now. I have been quiltmaking for over 40 years. In that time I have been to numerous workshops, shows, lectures and quilt groups. Obviously I have witnessed lots of quilts that are now in my subconscious and I worry that something I make will reflect that.

    As a result I have found, in recent years, that my creativity has been restricted and that, instead of sharing with others what I am making, I resist exhibiting my work for fear I might have accidentally produced something similar to something I saw somewhere. Do I sound neurotic, very possibly but until now no one seemed to be addressing the subject as you have. Thanks for that, it has been most encouraging.