Copyright & Quilters a FAQ & Links

The copyright issue comes up again and again for quilters. Copyright has become a hot topic now that so many patterns are shared and seen on the Internet and Web sites. If you have been online for more than a few weeks, and especially if you are on a quilting mailing list, you will likely have seen copyright discussions. Often these become heated as unfortunately quilters "take sides". For those who are new to the Web there is often the misunderstanding that "if it is on the Web, it's free for the taking". 

Recently some of the in-print quilting magazines have had articles about this subject and you'll probably see more. Our Quilting Forum is lucky to have a member who is a quilter AND a lawyer, Lynn. She kindly offered to write a Copyright FAQ for us and we will continue to add to it as more questions come in. We also have opened at topic Thread on the Forum for posting questions. See page 2 of this article for links to more copyright information to explore on the Web.

Quilter’s Copyright FAQ

1. The pattern my guild wants to use is out of print – does that mean I can copy it for everyone?

No. Just because it’s out of print doesn’t mean it’s no longer protected by copyright. Generally speaking a copyright lasts for 90 years after the death of the author or creator. During that time the person who holds the copyright has exclusive rights to publish – or NOT to publish.

[Correction received - Oct 2005
    My wife is a novice quilter, and I practice patent, trademark, and copyright law. I noticed in the Lynn Meering FAQs a minor error regarding copyright terms. Until 1978 the term of a copyright was the life of the author plus 50 years. It is now life of the author plus 70 years, not 90.
    If a work was done anonymously, or if it was done for hire, its copyright protection lasts 95 years from the year of its first publication, or 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever is the earliest.
    At one time, copyright terms were 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. Because of changes in the law, any work published, i.e. made public, before 1923 is now in the public domain and available for anyone to copy, use, sell, etc.
    Keep up the good work.
David Allen Hall, Ph.D., Registered Patent Attorney
Blanco, TX 78606-1540

2. I’m not going to charge anyone for the copies – doesn’t that make it OK?

No. "Commercial purpose" is only one part of the fair use test. Fair use applies to using a small portion of the copyrighted work, as for review or commentary. Even if you meet all the requirements of the fair use test you still cannot publish the entire thing.

3. What about traditional patterns ? Surely no one can copyright a Double Wedding Ring or Log Cabin pattern!

No one can copyright the idea of a traditional pattern or its general design, but if someone writes extensive directions and illustrates it with her own drawing or a photo of a quilt they made they can copyright that particular expression (the photo or drawing or directions) – although there would probably have to be something distinctive about the directions .

4. I have a photocopy of a quilt pattern. It doesn’t say where it came from or anything about being copyrighted. Does that mean it’s not protected and I can share it with friends?

No. There is no requirement that something be filed with the copyright office or marked in anyway in order to be protected . As soon as it is created it is protected by copyright. The rights belong to the creator or the creator’s employer or someone the creator has given them to. It is still protected.

5. If I design a quilt is there any reason I should get it formally copyrighted?

Yes. While your design is protected even without registration, formal registration will make it easier for you to protect your legal rights. It costs about $30 and the forms are available at the copyright office website:

But, remember that putting "copyright 2000 Sally Smith" on your patterns is a good idea for reminding people that your work is copyrighted since many do not understand the law on this.

6. Quilters have always shared patterns – why should we stop now?

Realistically, if you make a single copy of a pattern for your neighbor, nothing is going to happen. No one will even know about it unless you tell them.

But the internet is a VERY public place. If you post someone else’s design on your Web site or upload it to a bulletin board the owner will probably find out and may well take action. If a quilt site or forum earns the reputation of being a great place to go to get photocopies of published patterns you can be certain publishers will not hesitate to take action, ranging from removing the patterns to shutting down the site or even seeking damages from the "guilty" parties.

7. So is there any way to make and distribute copies of patterns?

Maybe. Contact the copyright owner to request permission. It may take a couple of tries because it’s not always clear who owns the copyright, but the owner may be willing to share, especially if you promise to give them attribution. Be sure to explain why you want the pattern and how you would like to use it since that will influence her decision. Or she may be willing to sell you a copy or license to make a certain number of copies or copies for a certain group. And, of course, many patterns posted on Web sites are specifically indicated to be free to anyone who wants them as long as some rules are followed. Rules may be as simple as giving credit to the designer and the Web site. But, remember, just because it is on the Web does not automatically give you the right to use it or reproduce it for more than your own use. Be sure to read the rules for use of the designs posted on the site. Always ask for permission first unless clear guidelines are stated.

Page Two with copyright Links is here.

Special thanks to Lynn Merring for these FAQ answers.
Lynn is a quilter and holds a Master’s of Library Science and a Juris Doctor, both from Indiana University and has been a law librarian for more than 20 years. She is currently employed by a firm in southern California where she lives with her husband, who is a lawyer with a practice in Intellectual Property.

Susan Druding

See the Table of Contents for HERE

SEARCH the Equilters site HERE

Quilting Forum at Delphi (QFaD)

Come and visit! It's free to join and full of friendly, lively quilt discussions and swaps.

 Click here to visit:

Here, below, is a sample of 5 currently discussed topics in
our Quilting Forum at Delphi (QFaD),
click any discussion to visit as a Guest. (joining is free)