A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Copyright and Copywrong: Finding an Image for Fabric Collage.” It was primarily about how we all need to be more careful about using images we find—so easily—on the internet. It received much more attention than I had expected or dared hope. I think it’s safe to say that it raised many folks’ awareness about the issue of copyrighted images on the internet.
There was a lot of good material generated both on my blog post comments—such as Edna Taylor’s in-progress version of Bella cat (above), based on the photograph by David Smith—and on my Facebook page. The questions raised were interesting and often headed off in directions that I hadn’t thought of in my original post. I decided I should compile some of that info here.
And here is also where I’d like to make an admission: the hours of research and compilation that has gone into these two posts are the result of my husband Tom’s delving into the subject of copyright. It’s something the two of us have talked about, but he’s the one who dove in head first to get those answers to you, and me. So, thanks Tom.
Technique and Style
Merrilee Fearnow asked me: “What about using your technique on a personal photograph when entering in a show? It’s so very distinctive that it seems like you should be given credit then also. Just wondering.”
Another way of asking Merrilee’s question is: “Should someone give credit to me, Susan Carlson, when they create a fabric collage quilt (in my style) based on a personal photograph?”
The short answer to that is that is no, it isn’t necessary. You can’t copyright the use of a technique students learn in class. I have had students mention that they took a class with me or that they used my book, Serendipity Quilts, for which I’m grateful, but if the image is their own, no credit is necessary.
However, if you’re talking about a class project—personal photograph or not—I believe the standard notation in a show is that the quilt was begun in a workshop with (insert teacher name here). The idea being that in the course of a class, the teacher is sure to have influenced the work in a way that the student would not have known how to do otherwise.
I suppose I could copyright the way I teach—similar to how certain industrial processes are copyrighted—preventing others from teaching fabric collage in exactly the same way I do, but that would be basically impossible to enforce.
Marmee Hartzell asked a similar question: “I wonder if we have to worry about copyright with using a technique someone else has taught us. There are many quilters on Facebook that use the same quilting style you do. I’m curious about your stance on the subject.”
Style is a slightly different issue than technique, I think. Copying the styles of other artists in order to learn from them is an age-old tradition. Rembrandt was paid to teach students to paint, then signed and sold the work done by his apprentices as his own. The idea back then, and I think today, is that a student shouldn’t benefit from making his or her work look like his or her teacher’s work. Or if the student does benefit, say in the form of recognition in an exhibit or an award, then credit should be given to the teacher.
In my opinion, though not necessarily by the letter of the law, the same idea would apply to work that is inspired by another artist’s work.
For example, Kathy Ziegler Porter posted a picture to my Facebook feed, and asked the following, “Susan, I made a Rhino similar to yours, using the Dover Picture by Dürer. I credited you as inspiration on the label and on the quilt description when I show it. Should I have asked you for permission? It’s still confusing.”
I responded to Kathy by thanking her for giving me credit for the inspiration—and for taking the deep breath to share the image and ask the question. Should she have asked permission first? I didn’t and still don’t know for sure. But personally, it would be nice to be asked, yes. I certainly don’t have any right to block the use of Dürer’s image, but I do think it would be in my right to ask that someone not re-create a rhino that looks just like mine. I wasn’t the first artist to be inspired by Dürer, and I certainly won’t be the last—I believe the art (and fabric) world is a big enough place for all of us. In the end, I do think that Kathy’s “Ralph the Rhino”, is distinct from mine with her choice of colors and floral patterns. I like Ralph.
And while we’re on the subject of Albrecht Dürer and his influence through the ages, friend and colleague Pam Holland also made a rhino quilt based on Dürer’s Rhinocerus print. We had no inkling the other had done so. But there’s no confusing our two rhinos either.
Making the Effort
While we’re looking for source material, the internet is a great, easy place to search. Looking for an image of a dog? Search Google. You’ll get thousands of images of every particular breed. In the original blog post I suggested that the ubiquity of images on the internet makes it easy to overlook that those images belong to someone. I believe that making the effort to find the copyright holder of an image is both legally required and just a nice thing to do.
I heard from a number of people who undertook the effort of finding the copyright holders for particular images, with mixed results.
One commenter—first name Kim—wrote the following about her quest to find an image to use as source material for a fabric collage quilt:
I have contacted three artists whose work I admire & would like to reproduce for your class. One has not responded, another said he would “consider it” & get back to me. The third is deceased, & his heirs have allowed me use if I pay a licensing fee of $75 for personal use only. While I love his painting, I’m not sure I want to pay $75 ($25 maybe, but I have a lot of fabric to buy!).
When you search out photographers and artists seeking the use of their images, you have to be prepared for them to say no. You also have to be prepared to fail to find anyone connected with the image you’re interested in. I think sometimes images are lost or abandoned, used and reused across the internet. But does it make it okay for us to use as source material? I have to say no.
Here’s an exchange I had on Facebook:
Joan Johnson What about pictures you find on Facebook and cannot find a name? I’m talking about stained glass windows, religious pictures on a religious site. Some I have searched, enlarged to see if a name is written on it, I have just put them in the “oh well” category.
Squeak Ahoy Try google images: they do a reverse search thing where you put the pic up and google will help you find it. Amazing technology! 😆
Susan Carlson Artist The idea of the reverse search is great, and probably works well for relatively uncommon or unique images. In my example of the lion that I use in the blog, it doesn’t help much because the images have all been used so often it may be impossible to track it back to its original source.
Joan Johnson So the answer is don’t use it? 🙂
Susan Carlson Artist When there are so many other choices available for which you can find attribution or confirm that it is free to use, yes, that is the answer: don’t use it.
But don’t let these two examples discourage you. People in general are pretty generous and artists are at least as generous as the average person. They are often happy to give permission when someone is courteous enough to ask.
Here’s a view from the other side of the issue:
Kim Harrell I’ve had quilters email me for permission to use my art, which I’ve given. I always ask them to please send me a picture of the finished work but so far nobody’s done that; either it never gets done or they forget.
So folks, let the artists see what you’ve done! I know, life gets in the way, but those “thank you’s” are appreciated. I certainly appreciate when quilters send me photos of finished fabric collage pieces for my Finish Line blog posts.
Also, it’s important to realize that it’s never too late to do the right thing. Even if you’ve already used the image, you can still contact the photographer or artist and ask permission. Be prepared to receive an answer you may not like, but isn’t that better than having a guilty conscience?
Again, don’t be discouraged. Persistence pays off. For example, check out the story of blog reader Edna Taylor who found an image online of a siamese cat she wanted to turn into a portrait:
I found the first picture on Pinterest months ago, had seen it frequently on various websites, KNEW I had to make her into a quilt. I searched for the original picture and photographer; however, I kept hitting a dead end. I went to Colorado Springs earlier this month for a quilting class to learn how to turn her into a quilt and when I got back, a picture of her with more of her ears popped up on a Google search so I intensified my search for the artist and after what seemed like hours of clicking through various sites and pictures and Pinterest pages, I finally found who I thought was the artist, so I went to Facebook, looked him up and sure enough, there was the picture. The artist is named David Smith, he lives in the UK and the picture is his baby Bella when she was about 13 weeks old. The photo was taken in 2011. He was very nice and most gracious when I asked (yes, after the fact) if I could use his photo of Bella. He has since sent me links to his other photographs which are simply stunning and he literally captures their souls in his photos.
A happy ending! The dedication Edna displayed paid off.
Another commenter asked what to say when you contact an artist for permission to use their image. You should include your name and contact info, the image you want to use, how you plan to use it, where you found the image, and ask how the artist wants to be credited. As an example, here’s Edna’s request to David:
I just found her [Bella the siamese] in your photos. I have been searching for the photographer of this photo for MONTHS. Okay, hopefully you will be okay with this but I signed up for a pet portrait quilting class and while we have MANY kitties to choose from (we are animal rescuers and in particular Siamese Rescue), I saw your photo on Pinterest and knew I just HAD to make this into a quilt. Soooooo, I am in the process of completing the quilt and while this is putting the cart before the horse, may I please use your photo for my quilt? It is not for sale but for personal use and I would be MORE than happy to give you ALL of the credit for the photo. Attached is my progress. Oh, I did not find your photo with ears until Monday so I will have to figure out how to draw those in to complete.
I certainly hope you are okay with me using this absolutely AMAZING photo for a quilt project
Edna hit all the right notes with her request. Including the personal touch about being an animal rescuer would have worked on me for sure.
And David’s reply:
Hi Edna, yes that photo is a shot of the lovely Bella taken in 2011 by me. Your quilt looks amazing, you’ve captured her really well. You are most welcome to use her photo, she will be very pleased when I show her. If you want to see how she’s grown, I post to Instagram and Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/bluepoint_uk/ and instagram.com/we_are_siamese_uk
Edna says: “So, as you can see, he is a lovely person and was so very gracious to allow me to use Bella as my muse for the quilt. I just hope that I honored her sufficiently with my fabric version of his quilt.”
Finding Copyright Free Images
Of course, it’s easiest to simply use images that are copyright-free in the first place. I gave a few hints in the original post for finding such source material, but readers shared a couple really interesting methods for finding images you can use freely without worry about copyright.
First, when using Google to search for images, one can filter the results to show images that are copyright free or that are usable for non-commercial use (among other options). In the example below I searched for “lion head.” The first window shows the unfiltered results. When I click on “Tools,” I can choose “Usage rights.” The second window shows those “Labeled for reuse,” which allows any use of the image. Other options place certain restrictions on the use.
As you can see, you receive completely different results when you filter the search.
Reader Stacey Sharp had the brilliant suggestion of checking out the collections of private and public museums and other organizations. She mentioned especially The Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to its press release, “all images of public-domain artworks in the Museum’s collection are now available for free and unrestricted use.” Other organizations Stacey pointed out: The Smithsonian, Library of Congress, and NASA. Each of these possess huge libraries of public domain images.
A Note About “Public Domain”
Perhaps now I should say something about “public domain images.” What are they? They are images that the public is free to use either because they have reached a certain age, were never copyrighted, or the creator has given up the copyright. The first case is most common. Many of the best know images in the world are in the public domain.
I wish I could say there’s a hard and fast rule about when an image ages into the public domain, but there are enough exceptions, not to mention variations between countries and different media, that it isn’t always clear. If someone claims a work is in the public domain because it was published before a certain date or because it’s a certain number of years old, don’t take the statement at face value. Double check before using the image.
Art Quilts and Traditional Quilts: A Changing Culture?
It seems to me that, as more and more quilters dip their toes into the art quilt world, they are carrying with them the culture of the traditional quilt world. Traditionally, quilts were decorative and beautiful, but utilitarian at heart. They were useful objects. They were also often community objects. Quilting bees, while not common anymore, set a tradition of sharing materials, labor, and designs. Patterns were shared freely among members of that community. That’s how traditional patterns became traditional.
Check out some comments from Facebook relating to this subject:
Roland Rodriguez Are not many quilts unauthorized reproductions of ones that came before them?
Ginny Fisher With traditional quilt patterns (Tumbling blocks, Texas Star, Dresden plate, zillions more) the original designer is most often unknown.
Mary Miller On the other hand, I’m self taught. Occasionally something I make will look like someone else’s work, because that is the nature of our media. I’ve done some log cabin quilts using very limited colors and irregular seams. I have also seen other artists do the same. My peeve is that other quilters will automatically assume I have copied another’s work.
While many quilts straddle the line between art and tradition, art quilts in general are not utilitarian, they are aesthetic. Their usefulness, if they can be said to have any, is in how they are appreciated by those who see them. They are works of art and their value lies in a large part in their uniqueness. So, while copying was accepted and encouraged in the history of traditional quilting, copying without permission in the art quilt world shouldn’t be any more acceptable than it is in the art world in general. A million counterfeits of the “Mona Lisa” degrades the value of the original.
You might be picking up on the fact that the issue of copyright encompasses more than photographs found on the internet. In our own little world of quilting there are numerous places where our instinct to share and spread the good word of quilting can cause us to overstep the boundaries of copyright. We might be tempted to photocopy and pass around something we found in a book on quilting, or make a copy of an original quilt pattern for a friend, or recreate a quilt we photographed at a quilt show. Where’s the harm in that?
Well, for those of us who write books (or blogs), teach, and create patterns and other tools, we feel driven to share this quilting world with others. And, in many cases, copyright infringement means loss of income, which could then restrict our ability to keep on doing what we’re doing—sharing it with others.
When we support creators by respecting their copyrights and/or purchasing rather than copying their work, they support us by being able to produce more work we can enjoy and/or learn from. It may take a little extra thought, work, or money, but in the end it shows a respect for all who are working hard to make our world better by creating—and sharing—beautiful things.