ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Copyright Conundrum

During the years I completed my university degree, I was a mature student in my mid-twenties, completing my studies while being employed full-time.  I remember distinctly my experience writing my first essay for my first year Anthropology class.  In this paper I paraphrased several sources, but completely ignorant of the importance of correct source citation, I did not credit many of the works I consulted for the information I used to write the essay.  I was horrified when my essay was returned covered with comments in pen.  The Teaching Assistant who marked my paper was quite harsh in his comments, and advised that I needed to learn about proper source citation.  He finished his comments by adding that he could have easily given me 0 for the paper.  However, he decided to give me the benefit of the doubt and assume it was out of ignorance and not malice, that I had failed at crediting my sources.  Let me tell you, I quickly did research to find out how to reference ideas and quotes.  This never happened to me again.

What does this have to do with art quilts?  Well I think the copyright issues that art quilters face are very similar.  When I started making what I thought were "art" quilts about 12 years ago, I was woefully ignorant of copyright issues.  Many of us were making quilts out of art or photos we found on greeting cards, on the internet, in magazines, etc.  I admit I also violated copyright.  Here is the most obvious violation.  I purchased a greeting card called "Friendship", which featured two very heavy women leading each other through a lake.  I traced the design onto a transparency film, enlarged it and made this quilt:
I named it "Clarissa and Jennifer", after the two hosts of the British cooking show "Two Fat Ladies".  Only a couple of years later I started learning more about copyright, and also realized that this work is not an art quilt.  It might be a contemporary quilt (in that it doesn't look like a traditional quilt, but it is a copy of another art work, so in my books it isn't art).  The right thing to do would have been to contact the artist and ask her permission to recreate her art work in fabric, and then credit her on the label and on my website.  If the artist had said no, I would have had to abandon the idea. The image was not mine to take.
 
I have noticed in the last couple of years that quilters are becoming very savvy about copyright issues.  Most shows now typically require quilters to credit the pattern designer, the teacher (if the piece was created in a class), the photographer (if a photo was used), the machine or hand quilters (if someone else quilted the work).  Today I taught my two-day "In Full Bloom" class where students bring a floral photograph and design their own quilt.  I had advised the class ahead of time that they must obtain copyright permission from the photographer if they were using a photo taken by someone else.  We had a great discussion on copyright today, and I was really pleased to see such a savvy group of quilters who were well-versed in copyright.
 
I now use the quilt above (in which I violated copyright) as an educational tool during my lectures.  Many times people in my audience are aghast that one cannot just take a photo off the internet or a greeting card and do what they want with it.  I start hearing the "buts".  In fact, I once taught a class where everyone in the class argued with me about copyright except for one person.  That one person happened to have a husband who is a photographer.  As a professional photographer, and an artist, when he puts his portfolio out on the internet to get business, he does not appreciate people just "taking" his work without asking and without credit.  Looks a lot different when you are on the other side of the issue, doesn't it?  We can all imagine how we would feel if someone copied our original quilt and didn't even give us credit, not to mention didn't even ask us.

I hear a lot of misconceptions out there about copyright, but it is most surprising when I find these misconceptions circulating among artists and fibre artists, who I don't think seem to be getting the same kind of education about copyright as quilters.  Because galleries don't expect artists to be copying their work from someone else, they often don't even have a mechanism for the artist to even give credit to whoever or whatever they copied.
 
Here are some of the excuses and misinformation I often hear about copyright:
 
1)  If I change mediums it is OK.  In other words, if I copy someone's painting into fabric, there is no copyright violation.  WRONG  The right thing to do is to contact the artist for permission.  If permission is not granted, you can't create the work.  There are certain artworks that are now in the public domain if the artist has been dead for more than a specified number of years (I have forgotten the number now but it isn't important to me because I don't base my work on these works).
 
2)  If the piece is made for my own use, and I never show or sell the work I've copied, there is no copyright violation.  WRONG AGAIN.  It is true that if no one ever sees your work, you are not in danger of being sued, but what I often see is that if the work turns out really well, the maker wants to show and/or sell it.  Then it is too late to get copyright permission.  What if the photographer says no?  I spoke with an intellectual property lawyer (who is also a quilter) and she told me that some lawyers might interpret "personal use" to still be a violation.  What concerns me now is that if I don't warn students about copyright and they use a photo without permission, then decide to enter their piece in a show, and credit me as the teacher, if there is any fall-out, I could be implicated as well. 
 
3)  It is OK if I only copy a certain percentage of someone else's artwork/photo.  Wrong again.  There should not be issues if you are only using the photo as a jumping off point, where the end piece doesn't look anything like the photo (i.e. you use the colours, or perhaps one shape but run in a new direction with it).  But actually copying a piece and changing only some of it, or copying the piece in other colours is still a violation.
 
4)  In Art School, students copy the Master's works.  TRUE, and I've done this in art classes BUT these are PRACTICE pieces to learn the methods, but are never meant to be exhibited or sold. 
 
5)  There is nothing new out there, everything has been seen and done.  This to me is an excuse.  When a professional photographer takes a photo, captures a beautiful composition, captures the light, and often the character of the person, flower, landscape, I think this makes the artist's job easier to recreate the photo, so I strongly believe that photographer should be credited (and asked for permission) for their contribution to the finished work.
 
4)  Well I really am not much of a photographer.  OK, but you can learn to take your own photos if it is important to your art.  Don't you want it to be YOUR ART? That is what I decided to do when I decided I wanted my work to be my own vision and experience and I didn't want to deal with copyright issues.  There are many wonderful cameras out there, even in the point and shoot category.  Besides that it is fun to be working on your art wherever you go by carrying a camera.  And even if you don't take your own photographs, it is usually very easy to find the photographer and contact them to ask permission.
 
There is one more thing I want to say.  There are some artists out there that think we shouldn't be working from photographs at all.  I once posed a copyright question to an on-line group I belong to, and received back some good information along with some of the above misinformation, but I also received criticism from several artists about the kind of work that results from using photographs as inspiration.  It seems that some look down on this kind of art.  A battle ensued on that list, from which some of us are still licking our wounds.
 
I'd love to hear from you!  What are your experiences with copyright?  Please feel free to post.
 
And just for something gorgeous ... today while I was out teaching, my husband was in Gatineau Park photographing autumn leaves.  Alas I will not make it there this year because my teaching seems to be falling on the few sunny days we've had, and I'm heading to Northern Ontario on Tuesday.  I hope there are some leaves left there!  Some of my husband's photos are stunning, but this one really caught my eye.  Can you not imagine the reflections of these trees stitched with a dense zig zag stitch.  Oh and by the way, I did ask his permission to post this (although some would say that all is fair in love ;-))).
 
 


16 comments:

  1. Excellent article, Elaine. You have explained this issue very well. I use my own photos in my art work too.

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    1. Thanks Judy. I've thought about it a long time and how to best present it, so I'm glad you found it well explained. Hope everything is going well in your world.

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    2. Thanks Judy. I've thought about it a long time and how to best present it, so I'm glad you found it well explained. Hope everything is going well in your world.

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  2. Well said. I'm glad that you used your own experiences to bring a very important point to the quilt world. I have changed my header photo from time to time and I have ALWAYS credited the person who took the photo giving as much info as I can such as where it was taken and when. Most often it was one of my daughters.
    Giving credit where credit is due is only fair. Copyright can get tricky and it behooves everyone to find out as much information as they can if they plan on using someone's art as their inspiration. I have seen many quilts in quilt shows where the maker did not even credit the designer of the pattern he/she used.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your comments Delores. Giving credit where credit is due is likely a good policy for anything in life. The internet has really made copyright violation a lot easier than it used to be. I dont even want to think about Pinterest.

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  3. I do like that our quilt list discussions have educated quilters on the use of copyrights. Still isn't it true that works of art done before the 20th century aren't copyrighted? When I go to a museum - I'm free to take pictures of such works and post them online (or at least that's what the museum said). Also - I want to say that I feel people take copyright to the extreme. It frustrates me to have a quilter design a quilt - print the pattern in a book (or pattern form) - then say - you can make that pattern but you're not allowed to sell the item. Now we're not talking mass production - just a single item - its a copyright infringement. I mean - OMG if you don't want to share the pattern - don't try to sell it and profit from it. Also the idea that designers making fabric and copyrighting the design to the point that you're not allowed to make things from it and sell those items is ridiculous. So yes by all means lets learn copyright laws but let's not try to take them the extreme. Ohhh and recently I did a blog post on the copyright free photo image source on Flickr - its called the Commons - a wealth of inspirational photos there!

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    1. Hi Nina Marie,
      Yes you are quite right that works of art enter the public domain after a certain time has passed. I do not remember the number of years but if I were to use another artists work I would certainly research this. Thanks for reminding about the copyright free site. I am going to write an addendum to this post and will include that. I know of a few other sites too but you always need to read the fine print to make sure what the terms are (maybe personal use but not commercial use for example. It may seem extreme to forbid someone from selling a quilt made from a pattern, but I doubt their are very many, if any, other fields where folks are allowed to make money off of another designers work. Most designers would licence their designs. I know of a person who made a business making hundreds of jackets and vests from another persons pattern (she had several people sewing for her), and ended up being shut down when the designer found out. The designer can profit more by selling more patterns hence there is sometimes a single use clause. I heard the kerfuffle about not being able to use designers fabric in works you are going to sell. Again, that is another one I would want to research. However, a savvy company like C&T really should have known better than to publish a piece made with a full line of fabric in one of their books without credit to the designer. I am sure any designer would have been disappointed in that situation. I think we need to put ourselves in other peoples shoes and think about how we would feel if it were our livelihood. Again, my knowledge of copyright surrounding patterns and fabric is pretty spotty as I dye my own fabric and design my own quilts. My post was mainly intended for those who make art quilts.
      I appreciate you sharing your comments.

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  4. Elaine, you have hit MANY NAILS on the head with this article! Should be REQUIRED reading for artists and art observers alike. Debbie Bein

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  5. Thank you Elaine for this good article. I will save a copy if you don't mind! It will be good to read it once in a while.

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  6. Oh, amen! This is SO important and SOOO well stated Elaine. Thank you. I will be asking some people to please read this posting! The very sad thing is though, some people STILL don't get it!

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    1. Glad you liked it Carolynn. I think the copyright issue makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

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  7. Brief PS. This is a FABULOUS photo! Please congratulate your husband. I LOVE reflections

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  8. Hi Elaine
    I have fun reading your blog and so I have nominated your blog for Beautiful Blogger Award. If you want to accept the award check my blog, http://dancingravenstudio.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/monday-award/

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    1. Why thank you Shawna! I am just back from a week long teaching trip, getting ready for a class, heading to Auburn this weekend and Houston next week, so I shall be happy to accept my award and all it entails when I return from Houston. Thank you so much!
      Elaine

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