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.
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?