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.”

Kathy Ziegler Porter’s “Ralph the Rhino,” inspired by my quilt “Tickled Pink,” which was inspired by Dürer’s “Rhinocerus.”
“Tickled Pink” by Susan Carlson, inspired by Dürer’s “Rhinocerus.” 64 x 42 inches.
Albrecht Dürer’s “Rhinocerus”

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.

“My Rhino,” by Pam Holland. 51 x 35 inches. Raw edge machine appliqué. 100% cotton. The inspiration for this quilt came from her trips to Africa and researching the art of Albrecht Dürer.

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.

The original picture Edna found online.
The picture that led Edna to David Smith’s Facebook page.
Edna Taylor’s quilt of Bella, based on the photograph by David Smith.

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

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.

An unfiltered search result for “lion head.”
Filtered results.

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.

Copy Right

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.

33 Comments

  • I very much appreciate your articles on this subject. I am new to the idea of creating art quilts and will use the information to guide me. Thank you both for your diligence.

  • Thank you for your detailed research. You have demystified a very confusing subject in a way one can understand. I use mostly my own photographs for inspiration to avoid all the copyright issues, but this subject is of great interest to me. I appreciate your time and attention to the matter. I used my own photograph for an art quilt which will be in the upcoming Maine Quilt show and in the show program gave credit to your visit to our quilt group meeting as my inspiration.

  • I understand needing permission to use someones’s photo. What about items such as cars, guitars, vases, wine bottles, furniture, shoes, buildings, etc. All objects have been designed and created by someone somewhere. In one discussion on FB there are some that felt it was necessary to have permission to use any object. That would leave only nature and geometric shapes to use. As I look at drawings, paintings, photographs, collages, quilts…are those artists are asking permission to include items like that in their work? I may be incorrect, but I doubt it.

    • That’s a little extreme I guess. I feel pretty confident saying that using these everyday objects in your artwork will be okay. Where you could run into trouble is in using the name, notoriety, fame, recognizability to make a profit. For example, if you made prints from a photo of a Ford Mustang convertible that looked like an ad for Ford. See what I’m saying? You’re not creating a new artwork in this case, but using someone else’s work to make a profit.

  • Excellent article! Thank you for covering copyright in such depth. I recently had an incident where a fellow guild member found a vendor selling handmade greeting cards at a show, featuring the image of one of my art quilts! It actually happened while that same quilt was traveling with the AQS.

    She had several cards with pictures of quilts, and she told my friend (almost proudly), that she knew someone who took photos at quilt shows, cropped the photos, and mounted them onto cardstock for her to sell. No credit was given to any of the quilters, and I knew two other art quilters whose work she was using on her cards.

    It was a pretty upsetting incident, not only because she was trying to profit from my work, but the photo was such poor quality, I felt they were potentially damaging to my brand.

    While the vendor at first didn’t understand our issue with it, she did turn over all of the cards that featured our work to my guild friend, who then gave them to us. We haven’t seen her at our regional quilt show since, and I’m sure she didn’t intend any harm, but I hope she learned to not try this with anyone else’s art.

  • This is so helpful! Thanks Sue! I have your book & intend to do the turtle as my 1st project. A good friend of mine who takes fabulous pictures of wildlife posted a cool picture of a bird I’d like to do. I will be asking her permission first, of course. I love your work!
    Lynn Baker

  • Great Information!!
    Many thanks Tom for all of the research you did on this issue. And thanks Susan for sharing all that you do. It is very much appreciated!

  • Thank you for addressing this issue. For many years I have taught a workshop called “The Big Picture.” Each attendee is asked to bring an image from which they will design their quilt. In the supply list, I specifically tell them, “Do not use images you find online, unless you have written permission from the owner of the image. Do not use images from magazines, calendars, books, etc.” Without exception, in every single workshop, there has been ~at least~ one person who ignores that request. If I ask, for example, “Did you take that photo?” or “Is that your painting?” the response is usually something like, “No, but I didn’t have one that I liked” or “No, but my quilt will be so different than the photo that no one will know.” The one that really floored me was a graphic designer who brought someone else’s photo and then later in the class, told a story about how upset they were that one of ~their~ designs had been used without their permission. It seems so obvious to me–use your own image or get permission if using someone else’s. It’s the right thing to do.

  • Thanks so much Susan for some excellent articles about this very confusing subject. Some other advice – – If you use your own photo and make an art quilt from your photo, don’t forget to copyright your own quilt on the label on the back to establish your rights.

  • I often purchase greeting cards that I have hopes to use as inspiration for an art quilt. These are usually purchased in a booth at a craft or art show and I always ask the artist if it’s okay to ‘someday’ use their art in a quilt that I do not intend to sell, and they so far have always been gracious about it and ask to see the finished project. I haven’t actually made a quilt from it so for, but with note inside the card saying that I asked and the response, covers me should I ever get around to making a quilt using the card as inspiration!

  • Hi Susan, thank you both for all your hard work on researching this material. I do have a question. I have started an art quilt. A copy of klimt’s, “The Kiss.” I was excited to reproduce it with an assortment of different techniques and fabrics, however I am now not sure if it’s the right thing to do. An art shop has an interest in displaying it when it’s finished. Should I carry on? Thanks for your time.

    • Elaine, a quick Google search indicates that Klimt’s “The Kiss” is in the public domain, so it is free to use. I had a student use a different work of Klimt’s in a class once.

  • Thank you Susan & Tom for getting in depth on this subject. It is one I really try to understand & absorb.

    As an update to my getting permission from artists to use their images, I have positive news! I was able to contact artist Colleen Wilcox, explained that I admired her work (& I own a couple of her prints already) & she very graciously said I could use any of her catalog as long as I credited her & sent her pics of the quilt. She is a Hawaiian artist, & the embodiment of the Aloha spirit … I am so jazzed! Now on to buy fabric!

    So I guess the point of this comment is keep trying, & don’t become discouraged. 😄

  • Great articles and highly informative. I’d like to throw something in here regarding researching images. If you don’t find a name attached to an image, keep looking, and keep looking. One company in particular, has a staff of researchers looking at blogs, websites, newsletters, etc. and if they find ANYTHING that is in their large repertoire of copyrighted images, they will have no problem whatsoever sending you a BIG invoice for your use of that image. They are a large enough organization that they don’t care and will take you to court in a heartbeat. That said, don’t be afraid to negotiate with them, should you have used an image they deem is theirs, as you will likely be able to plead ignorance. Be forewarned. Oh, and yeah, it’s Getty Images.

  • All good information, thank you. I still have a question about using a piece of artwork dated 1917 as the inspiration for a quilt I made. It has been auctioned off and is in a museum I believe at this point. It’s also 100 years old now and the artist died in 1967. Do I worry about any copyright infringement or finding relatives for permission at this point?

    • If you only used the work for “inspiration” you should be okay. There’s a gray area in copyright that allows for work like yours. The history of art is littered with examples of artists being inspired by one another. If you significantly changed the work you should be okay. As far as whether the copyright has expired, that’s a complicated question that I don’t dare weigh in on.

  • This is very informative I am wanting to do some collage-ing of specific animals and this information will be quite usefull I do not want to step on toes or cross line I should not. As I am not a photographer I need to find an image I can work from to create my pieces. Thank-you for all the information Sue.

  • Thank you Susan for a great article on copyright. I have given a talk to our guild on this subject which is so vast and confusing. I hope it would be okay to use some of your ideas in any further talks I might give. The knowledge we have about this subject the better.

  • I appreciate all your work. I have taught clay arts nationally and have had students ask me about using my techniques. I have always they were free to us anything I taught . I felt if they were artists they would quickly develop their own style, and if they were doing it for themselves I was pleased too help them do it. I totally agree with you on copying material from books, kits or other copyrighted source a, it does damage the artists income. I had my work copied abroad and sold cheaper to stores than I could make it. That was distressing.

  • Thank you for both posts. Very interesting and easy to understand the way you write it. My guild here in Denmark has also discussed the subject, and with the same conclusion. Use your own images or ask permission from others. Thank you so much. Cheers Karen Hvid

  • Thank you both for such detailed information on this very confusing issue. I personally have heard several accounts of what Copyright means and have heard many various versions. I appreciate your time, effort and unselfish sharing of information.

    I have a question Susan: I took a class, made a project from a pattern provided by teacher, then sold it to a friend. Am I allowed to sell a project started in a workshop, using techniques learned and a pattern provided? Is there a Copyright issue here?
    Thank you
    Barbara

  • A friend of mine has a photo of her grandmother that I would love to turn into an art quilt. A photographer took the photo of her in the nursing home. My friend says yes that I can use the photo, but I am wondering if I need the photographers permission? Any advice welcome!

    • Hmmm. I would say you should check. When I published my books I had to include photo credit for those photos I had not taken myself.

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