My various projects in the world of sewing, web, and life are legion, but I’ve now got it in my head to start quilting. We’ll see how that goes considering I’m 48 hours into this plan, and I’m already being surprised. Not by the process of quilting but by something I found as I quested into the rarely-explored (by me) section of quilting fabrics at the local JoAnn Fabrics: non-commercial, home use-only fabrics. What?
No, my eyes aren’t deceiving me, right?: that bit of fabric selvage clearly states
Sold for non-
commercial home use only.
Intellectual property (IP) and copyright isn’t something I’ve ever considered to have ramifications on the sewing world. Considering that most of my sewing experience deals with basic, mostly non-patterned fabrics, there’s been little call for me to consider the implications of copyright on my creations. I learned not too long ago that clothing can’t be copyrighted, even though patterns can be, so that was the end of my thoughts on the matter.
Serendipitously enough, Katherine, the author of a blog I follow (and college friend) is the daughter of a patent/IP lawyer, and she—with answers from her mom—just authored a post about how IP has (or doesn’t have) an effect on Etsy products. Her article is where I’m sourcing most of this from, with a little help from my years of awareness with Instructional Technology work (although digital media is its own beast when it comes to copyright).
Define IP and copyright
People have spent entire law careers focused solely on IP: a good indication that there’s no clear-cut, always-followed definition. A good working one however is that
Intellectual Property is a copyrightable, trademark-able or patentable product of someone’s creativity or intellectual activity.
For a definition of copyright, we’ll look to Wikipedia:
Copyright is the set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work. These rights can be licensed, transferred and/or assigned. … Copyright applies to a wide range of works that are substantive and fixed in a medium.
So, how is fabric IP?
Let’s get semantic here: if we consider that copyright applies only to works that are
fixed in a medium, fabric can’t be copyrighted. While it is itself a medium, it becomes other media, such as quilts, clothes, decorations. It can be affixed to artworks, etc. It is not fixed to any specific medium. Not to mention, if the method used to weave plain-weave cotton fabric could be patented, it’s fallen into public domain by now, surely.
But in this case, the fabric isn’t just defined by its method of construction, but by the design printed on it. That design is fixed to a medium: the fabric it’s printed on. Additionally, the visual design was created by someone—in this case Susan Winget—and is therefore a copyrightable piece of “art”.
Does it really mean “I can’t sell a product made with this fabric?”
Because IP and copyright are both so debatable and have a variety of gray-areas, it’s hard to just say “yes” or “no” here. So, let’s discussed a couple different types of selling:
I’m a clothier who intends to make objects of clothing out of this with the sole intention to profit. No. From start to finish, the intent here is commercial.
I’m a hobbyist that sews clothing, quilts and craft things for my [children/grandchildren/friends] and those items are occasionally resold once they’ve been outgrown. Probably ok. This is a gray area. The item created from the fabric was not made with the intention of commercial profit. If you were to post an item for sale it may be within the artist’s rights to request that you remove listings of the item, but you should contact a lawyer only if that happens. Chances are, the artist won’t care in this situation. Your intent was not to profit, you’re merely (re)selling a used item.
When I talked to Katherine about this, she had another good point: “Commercial use” also applies to things used in for-profit plays, television shows, advertisements, etc. So, if you’re making an article of clothing or craft item for display in say, your pattern company’s catalogue, as a project made from your pattern, you’re violating copyright if you use this fabric. Or, if you’ve sewn a quilt using this material for non-profit purposes but use an image of that quilt in the advertisement for your quilt-making company, you’re probably violating copyright with that advertisement.
So, this all really makes me think twice about ever buying fabric from that designer again. The project I purchased this for is most likely going to be presented to a friend’s baby, but as she gets further along and finds out the gender, I may start a new, more-gender-specific quilt. If that were to happen, my thoughts were to possibly sell the currently in-progress project. That makes me wonder if I should even bother using the fabric in it at all. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there with that choice to make. That’s not to say that I don’t think fabric designers deserve to profit and have rights to their designs, but as a craftswoman trying to navigate the big bad world of commercial endeavors, this is one more thing I have to be aware of—and worried about—when plying my hobby/trade. In my world, it’s simpler to just deal with fabrics that don’t have copyright strings attached.