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Thursday, July 14, 2011

I'm calling "shenanigans" - There are limits to an author's rights!

Several days ago Laurie Aaron Hird, author of The Farmer’s Wife Sampler, wrote to tell a list member she was not permitted to post tutorials on her blog to help others learn to make the blocks in the book. Mrs. Hird claimed creating tutorials for the blocks in her traditional sampler book was a violation of copyright law. The ensuing discussion on the Yahoo! list revealed some fundamental misunderstandings about what copyright law means to the quilting community. That discussion, coupled with some of the contortions I see as Flickr group members try to toe a line the author has outlined has persuaded me to do a short series of posts on copyright as it relates to quilting. 

This is the first in the series.


I want to start by letting you know that I'm a big fan of author's rights and of copyright. On the one hand, copyright grants important rights to authors. And on the other hand, copyright places important limits on an authors' rights. Those limits are crucial to promoting creativity because the limits allow authors to build on one another's work. And, when authors do that that we all benefit. We have more and better books; more and better blogs; and more and better classes as a result.

Let's look at how The Farmer’s Wife Sampler benefited from the limits of copyright:
  • The author used letters other people wrote. She was entitled to do so because the letters had passed into the public domain. The copyright on those letters was limited in duration.
  • The author used blocks other people designed. She was entitled to do so because the block designs had also passed into the public domain. The copyright on the blocks was limited in duration.
  • The author didn't develop the idea of a sampler. She was entitled to use that idea because ideas can't be copyrighted – only the expressions of those ideas.
  • The author didn't develop the technique of constructing quilt blocks using templates, either. But she was entitled to include template techniques in her book because, even though a specific description or illustration of a technique can be copyrighted, the technique itself can't be copyrighted.
Clearly, the limits imposed on the original authors' and block designers' copyright were absolutely essential to the development and publication of The Farmer's Wife Sampler book. Those same limits benefit the hundreds of other quilting books, blogs, and classes that discuss traditional quilting blocks and techniques.

So, I was more than a little surprised when Mrs. Hird claimed that bloggers could not create tutorials on making these quilt blocks because those tutorials would violate Mrs. Hird's copyright. Every quilter has the same level of entitlement to use the resources of the public domain in their own work that Mrs. Hird has for hers. I'm calling shenanigans on her claim. Her rights simply don't extend that far.

All of us - traditional authors, contemporary bloggers, teachers, and quilters  - benefit from reasonable limits to authors' and designers' rights. Those limits make possible the vibrant quilting community we love so much.

I've been an educator my entire adult life and I believe it's important for us to know what is so and what is not so in order to act responsibly towards our heritage and towards the authors who contribute so much to our culture. I thought it would be useful to take a few minutes to learn what the law actually says about how to protect our quilting heritage, our public domain, and the rights of our authors and ourselves. In a few days, I'll post some background information about copyright with a specific focus on the quilting tradition.

The intent in this post - and in my upcoming posts - is to educate us on what copyright actually means to quilters and to the authors/designers/bloggers whose work we appreciate.

Edited to add: I contacted the moderator of the Yahoo! mailing list asking how we could share info about copyright with those on the list. I thought I had allowed enough time for her to respond. When she didn't, I went public with this first post. Well, I just got a very nice note from her. In it, she said that "I think we are closer to thinking the same thing than it appears." I'm going to work with her on figuring out how to share more information without getting everyone in an uproar. I hope we'll be clarifying some misunderstandings in the near future. I really hope the discussion is helpful.

Edited (again) to add: Mrs. Hird has contacted me through the comments on this post. I tried to contact her through the Yahoo mailing list before making this post. When I didn't get a response, I sent a private note to the Yahoo list moderator leaving it to her to decide if she would share with Mrs. Hird. It was only after those two attempts to clarify failed (or so I thought), that I made this public post. I look forward to talking to both of them and clarifying any misunderstandings.


  1. * standing & applauding*

    Hear, hear! I've written this post (in my head, and not so coherently), so I'm delighted to see this topic covered here.

  2. Nicely said. Very good information and so glad to see it written so succinctly.

  3. I am interested in learning more about this topic. I too was surprised at the authors response. The quilt-a-long group generated a lot of new sales of her book. I bought it and really appreciated all the help I could get with the more challenging blocks. Yes, the idea for the book was hers, but there are no specific instructions for putting the individual blocks together. There are templates but that's about it. I don't see how having someone explain their way of constructing a very traditional block can be an infringement of a copyright. The basic block is not original. I love the book, but think the author is incorrect about this issue. Hey, more interest generates more sales. After the book is purchased, what's the difference how we accomplish the final quilt? I could however see the problem if people do not purchase the book and just use others templates. That's just cheating, plain and simple.

  4. Will you please contact me directly so that we can discuss this? I'm sorry that you did not do this in the first place. Thank you.

    Laurie Aaron Hird
    Author of The Farmer's Wife Sampler Quilt

  5. Thank you for a lovely well written, kind post on this matter. I have shied away from creating, promoting or selling items, due to not wanting to cross any lines or be perceived as crossing lines. I can't wait to read your future posts on the subject.

  6. From the perspective of someone who has been educated extensively on copyright laws, I have to disagree with the conclusions you have drawn in your post.

    The collective works that make up The Farmer's Wife Quilt Sampler are protected from reproduction by Copyright laws of the United States. While parts of the book are derived from works from the public domain, as a whole, they are protected. There isn't a special exception for quilter's - and suggesting that one exists only serves to create more confusion.

    If someone wanted to create a series of tutorials highlighting the method of creating a variety of traditional blocks, they are within their rights to do so. In fact there is currently a Skill Builder Sampler QAL being conducted online right now and many of the same blocks found in The Farmer's Wife will be covered in that QAL.

    However, if someone wishes to create a series of tutorials highlighting how to make The Farmer's Wife Quilt, only the person who holds the copyright has the legal right to do so. Would you take any other pattern bearing a copyright and post it online or distribute copies? I would hope not - this situation is really no different.

    There is a long standing tradition among quilters to teach one another. I appreciate that the person offering to create the tutorials was only trying to teach others - unfortunately by doing so, it would be at the expense of the author and designer. She deserves to be rewarded for her efforts and the copyright she placed on the book and pattern ensures that she will be.

  7. To Stefanie - My intent in this post was to focus on how the balance between authors' rights and society's rights was beneficial to everyone - including the authors. I'm not advocating that we ignore authors' rights.

    I currently plan to write about protectable (including collective works) and non-protectable expression in the next post although my plans may change.

  8. I have some drawn out farmer's wife blocks on graph paper because I couldn't figure out the paper piecing and I REALLY don't like templates. Is it okay to share those? It sure would make life a lot easier for a lot of quilters. I plan on starting one of my graphed out versions this week and would like to publish it on my blog. If the author didn't want people sharing, then maybe she should give the option of graphed out versions. We quilters are too smart.

    By the way, you left a comment on my blog asking about the black fabric I used on Mill's Girls. I got it from Connecting Threads and it's called Plumage. I wasn't sure how to respond to your post, so I left a comment on my own blog. I'm getting used to blogging slowly.
    Thanks, Sharon

  9. Hi Sharon,

    I'd be interested in learning how you use the graph paper drawings. It's not a technique I'm familiar with. (I really need to find time to write the post on collective works).

    Here's the short answer, though, keeping in mind that I am not attorney. Basically, you will probably have a problem if you published the graphed versions of the entire collection of blocks - even a substantial portion of the collection. But, if you published lessons using a few blocks to teach some basic concepts about your version of piecing, there shouldn't be a problem because these blocks are in the public domain. That means any one can use them. And, frankly, your readers would likely learn more if they then took what you taught about a 4x4 block, for example, and worked out how to do it for themselves on a different 4x4 block on whatever project they're working on.