Fabric and Copyright Revisited: Law, Ethics, and Name Recognition

We’ve been through this a few years ago with Amy Butler — a blogger found a vintage tablecloth by an anonymous designer that Ms. Butler reworked for one of her quilting fabric lines. Ms. Butler turned out to be extremely gracious and open amidst the controversy and transparent about her process, and I learned a great deal from her and others along the way.

But what if a contemporary designer re-works something by a well-known designer from the past?

Recently I came across such a fabric. It is currently on the market and is clearly a re-working of a textile pattern by one of my favorite midcentury designers. The midcentury designer is deceased but still well known to this day (if not a household name) and has a distinct style. As far as I can tell, the contemporary designer does not give credit to the original designer anywhere. The two designs are almost exactly alike, except the re-working has fewer fine lines and is recolored.

I emailed the following to the contemporary designer twice but got no response.

The topic of intellectual property laws in regard to fabric design is one I continually visit on my blog. As copyright information on early-to-mid 20th century designs is often indeterminable, and both designers’ and consumers’ desire for vintage reproductions and vintage-influenced work is strong, I am interested in how contemporary textile designers navigate this territory. If you have a little time, I would love to have your comments on the subject in regard to your ______ design and your work in general.

My initial reaction upon discovery of the re-working was mild disgust. Such a prominent designer blatantly ripping off a recognized midcentury artist! The scandal! But over many iterations of that email, I realized that I don’t know all the facts. The curiosity that I tried to convey in the email is sincere. I don’t know whether the original designer’s works are protected or are in the public domain. Copyright law is complex and I’m not sure how it would apply in this situation.

But even if the contemporary designer is legally in the clear, what about ethically? My reaction is that it’s wrong for an artist to use the work of another established designer, dead or alive, so literally. But public domain vintage designs byanonymous designers are reproduced/recolored all the time, and is that not OK? There’s a parallel here between covering/sampling in the music industry, which in my opinion is ethically fine. I guess my source of discomfort is when people don’t give credit. Am I naive in thinking that’s something fabric designers should be obliged to do? And if so, where does one draw the line between less direct influence and more direct “re-working”?

I’m not naming names in this post because I don’t want this to be a pile-on of the contemporary designer. I am more interested in the overarching issues than in pointing fingers. If you have a better understanding of copyright law, ethics, and fabric industry practices than I do, please comment. Even if you don’t, I still welcome your thoughts.

Further reading:

- This post from Feed Dog, which points to this helpful article about copyright and craft and some books that argue that too-restrictive application of copyright law stifles creativity.

- Creative Commons


  1. Jenna says:

    I find that with this subject it is hard to draw a clear line. I love that recreating old designs gives the average person a chance to own them, but at the same time it kind of makes me sick/sad that modern designers are rolling in the money just to reconfigure or just plain copy another designers work. I mean I can scan a fabric and change the color/size/repeat of the design…. would that make me a designer? I guess I’m just trying to say that I wish they would all do original works. Or at the very least credit should be given or somehow it should be known that it was not an original work. Just my opinion at 7am after just waking up. thanks.

  2. daisy janie says:

    Excellent topic! Intentional and blatant copying of a design without crediting the original designer is wrong. However, I do believe there are many cases where a designer who has a strong preference for and is stylistically influenced by a certain design period will unintentionally create work that looks like a previous design – a gravitional pull of sorts I guess.

  3. scout says:

    In so many domains (music, architecture, painting, computer programming), we cherish new works that are directly inspired by old ones; new ones are often richer for their reference to prior works.

    However, a key component of this honorable re-use of artistic material is the _credit_ that is given. I think that’s why attribution is such an important element of CC licenses; it helps us understand what is new and what is old, which parts are re-mixed and which are fresh. Amy Butler didn’t explicitly give credit the moment her new line was released because the print she reproduced was more significant in its representation of an industrial/historical era than its individual artistic contributions. But, she was straightforward about where she received her inspiration, and about her methods for bringing elements of bygone periods back into the modern day.

    In the case where a print is by a well-known designer, I would place it more in the “art” category than the “industrial/historical” category. So, in that case, even if the antique print is free of copyright, a modern artist who uses it in their work should be sure to give credit that helps us consumers understand where it came from, and situate its re-use in our vision of modern works.

    And, I think that’s enough philosophizing for this computer scientist at the moment. :)

  4. lizzy says:

    I was thinking about the idea of it being OK for a musician to re-hash a song and everyone being kosher with it (except for the fans of the first one…”no one will ever do it like Sting could”) because the credit is inevitable. P-Diddy sings Every Breath You Take, and everyone knows whose song it is. There is no doubt, not only that but there isn’t a radio dj alive who isn’t going to say something about the original. That and if you think our copyright laws are crazy and or tough, theirs are out of control. You don’t just license a song, you are screened by the original artist and or the production company to see if your version is even deem able… good or bad. Too good; no dice. Too good… new life to the song (royalties!). Too bad; death the song. Too bad; “we loved the original, this is just a cover”

    I think that because you have to delve to realize that a designer “has covered” a pattern, or flat out taken it without even a hint of who it belongs to, it is easier to claim as your own, and have only 25 nerdy designers with their fists on their hips because so and so is using a Ray Eames pattern, and how dare they! (i am one of those)

    I wish that there was a better use of public domain though. Just because it is, is no credit STILL due? No I don’t think so. You can print one of William’s Sonnets on whatever you want, but everyone knows it’s his, Mr. Shakespeare will still receive the credit. So why is it that patterns and artwork and designers of the past can get the shaft? On the other hand some artists take things from the Public Domain, then claim it as there own, and try and jump on the case of anyone using the same right. That’s not cool either. Intellectual property is a very interesting thing

    One last thing. In my opinion: licensing, scanning, re-scaling, re-coloring, does not make you a designer. It makes you a stylist.

  5. Nanette says:

    Lizzy’s last point is true. I’m not a designer. But I wish I could take some of my feedsacks and reproduce them. I have some treasures that I haven’t seen anywhere ever in any fabric line other than this piece of feedsack. I guess thats what spoonflower is for? Or is it? I have several I’d like to scan and have made into fabric but I have hesitated because I don’t know if it is right or not. I would like to know though.

  6. I rather think it’s more of an embarrassment for the contemporary designer now unless there is a company or estate who wishes to pursue them for infringement. If there’s any real motivation for a prominent designer to NOT blatantly take someone else’s design and call it there own, it would be to preserve their credibility.

    But from the business end this shame doesn’t go too deep as long as they aren’t about to be sued… as a professional in the garment industry I have been asked MANY times to knock something off “just change it a little”. And that’s from other contemporaries. There is really not much respect for what we do, I’m afraid.

    There are plenty of times were designers are on the same wavelength though and I do believe that coincidences are likely to happen.

  7. Sally says:

    I don’t know the ins and outs of this but in response to your post, I bought some fabric which was pitched as vintage Lucienne Day. I desperately want to believe that to be the truth and continually research to try and verify it. However the fabric is exceptionally bright and pristine in colour and I think a print from that time (if it is hers it fits with her earlier, smaller patterns) then surely some even slight discolouration might be expected.
    If anyone can shed any light, especially in context with the discusson above, I’d be really keen to know more… http://www.flickr.com/photos/ladyfort/695366684/in/set-72157600188417249/

  8. Katie says:

    I’m glad that you brought up this subject. There’s such a fine line between reworking, reproducing, and using a piece as inspiration. Like the others, there are a lot of vintage fabrics that I have, that I would love to have reprinted, but there’s no information and it’s hard to find.

    I did have a similar reaction to yours as I was browsing eBay this past week. There was a feedsack for sale that was exactly like a print from Flea Market Fancy. I really, really love that line, and I felt kind of disappointed that I had assumed they were an original design of Denyse’s. I then further searched online about her inspiration and found that she had said that this line was based on her personal collection of feedsacks. So, I’m still feeling a little disappointed, at least she has acknowledged they were from vintage fabrics.

    In any case, I think that using vintage fabrics as inspiration are fine, as long as that is acknowledged. However, a blatant copy of a known designer really bothers me, if there is no statement saying that is was either inspired by or a reproduction of that designer. I don’t know, that’s just my 2 cents.

  9. john hopper says:

    This is an interesting subject and throws up a lot of uncomfortable thoughts about contemporary design.

    When I studied for a degree in textile design, we were always encouraged to seek inspiration from the world around us, but also from past designers. However, no one would have dreamed of producing a close copy of another designers work as it would serve no real purpose as we were all encouraged to produce work that was linked to our own personal style. That of course takes time, but you do eventually start distancing yourself from your initial designer inspiration.

    There is also a case for the ‘in the style of’ design work, as long as the designer or genre is clearly stated.

    On the other matter of ‘back catalogues’. Reproducing the works of William Morris, etc serves a market. There is no reason why design work from the last century or so shouldn’t be reproduced, as long as the designer is named.

    The close copying of designers work is of course not new. Hard working designers and manufacturers have always been ripped off and flagrantly copied by cheaper and lazier designers and companies. There seems very little that can be done to stop this and I am personally not a big fan of complex copyright laws which I believe will strangle any creativity and freedom of movement in the design world.

    Information is perhaps the answer. Pointing out obvious copies or overly close ‘inspirations’ might help us to judge just who are the best innovative contemporary designers and who are the less talented copiers.

  10. rosa says:

    Have you heard from the designer yet? I’m *very* curious to know who they are and what they ill tell you.

  11. rosa says:

    By the way, although it’s a bit off-topic, have you seen this post I wrote on You thought we wouldn’t notice some time ago?

  12. Malinda says:

    very interesting topic and one I’ve been wondering about too. You mention amy butler in the article and while I don’t remember the original controversy, I have some paper from wrapping paper set I bought in the late 80′s and have been hoarding since that is CLEARLY the “inspiration” for one of her fabrics. it has bugged me since the first time I saw the fabric. I understand inspiration, but there is a fine line between inspiration and copying someone. Ethically, I think it should be your own work or some major credit to the original designer.

  13. Judy says:

    A parallel topic: I have created some original designs of my own. My degree is in Anthropology. So I have no formal education in the area of my new passion.

    I’m currently researching how best to produce them and the appropriate manufacturers. My concern is how to protect my Intellectual Property. I’m paranoid about showing them to anyone outside my close circle for this reason. Ignorance breeds fear, right. And on this topic, I’m completely ignorant. I don’t even know how to go about getting an IP copyright.

    I can’t produce them and market them without showing them, though. I need to resolve this issue. After reading the aforegoing discussions, I’m wondering if it’s worth the effort or expense to copyright. I’m operating on a shoestring. I’m ignorant and poor. But I have talent, imagination and drive. I just need to be more knowledgeble in the areas of IP and production.

    My research has brought me to the Digital Dye Sublimation Process. Any thoughts on this, IP copywriting, or the design to fabric production process would be greatly appreciated.

  14. mildred dennis says:

    I am much like Judy, ignorant of the law, poor; and creative. I do not want to recolor, copy or reproduce the fabric. I design products using the signature fabrics and told within my inner circle that if I market/or sell these items I can be sued for a significant amount of money that I do not have. My question is this, if I purchase the fabric shouldn’t I have the right to use it as I please?

  15. Melissa says:

    I have worked as a stylist, textile designer, and product developer starting at a textile company in New York, moving to a bedding company, and finally landing at a quilt fabric manufacturer. I even had my very own line produced (from designs I painted…not reproductions). I’m taking a break to be a mom but hope to return to surface design soon. Here is a little info I’ve picked up over my crazy zigzagging career…

    Judy, I really don’t think you need to worry so much. My understanding is that when a new design is created, it is automatically protected and you would have legal recourse if anyone tried to steal your design. Textile manufacturer’s know this and know it isn’t worth a legal battle to steal a few designs…it is easier for them to just pay you a small royalty. On quilt fabric the royalty is typically .10 cent/yard. Some designers charge a flat fee for use for a specified amount of time…like $900/for use in the bedding category for 2 years.

    It is true there are many collectors of vintage fabric…but only some people seem to get their vintage textiles reproduced. In the quilt fabric world this has more to do with your name than your collection. Amy Butler made a name with her inventive patterns and her contributions to a magazine (Country Living I think?). Others are famous quilt designers and/or quilt book writers. There are plenty of reproduction lines out there, the fabric manufacturer wants a name that can help sell the fabric they invest in…the mills they work with require a minimum printing, about 3,000 yards per pattern/800yds per colorway…so the manufacturer is committing a chunk of cash to each design.

    I am very torn over the reproduction vs. original design debate. Are any designs truly original? Everything I have ever done has some influence from the past. I do use old patterns as inspiration. I really love vintage fabric and vintage designs (including wrapping paper, wallpaper, etc) but I’ve noticed that a large portion of the items in my collection have no designer specified. I would love to know more about those nameless designers. I’ve tried researching some of the designs…the ones that have a few clues but have gotten no where. It would be nearly impossible to credit the original designer. And I don’t think it is needed unless you are pretty much reproducing the design exactly (by this I mean recolor/resize). Redesigning a repeat is quite tricky and I think that should qualify as a new design.

    On the other hand, it irritates me to see all the fabric “designers” who don’t have a clue about drawing, painting, or designing repeats. They pick up some swatches at a flea market and send it off to Japan or Korea (to the nameless designers there) to have it painted into repeat. I sometimes think I should take the easy road with them but ultimately, this just isn’t satisfying artistically. It is nice to know there are people thinking about this topic.

  16. steph says:

    forgive my ignorance, if this question has already been answered, but i am a bit confused which is not unusual.

    I am wanting to make and sell small quantities of my digital scrapbooking layouts, to individual personal clients, designed individually for them with photos etc and am wondering where i stand regarding using fabrics i find on the web in my designs?

    your info greatly appreciated as i do not want to do the wrong thing.

    regards and thanks


  17. steph says:

    ps, in tiredness as i reread my post i think aaah, that probably made not much sense. the photo’s will be directly fm my clients so no copyright there and i should have of course said that i would ‘credit’ the pieces of fabric in my designs to the appropriate person, which i suppose in essense would be good marketing for them and perhaps promote sales of their product.

    happy days and thanks for any responses.

  18. Lisa P. says:

    This is a great conversation that I am reading for the first time now, although it looks like it was posted a year ago. I studied art as my undergrad and agree with John Hopper that using influences of other artists is encouraged, although copying them and turning it in as your own is not. I think all manner of design and art always has references to the past or present world around us, whether those influences are obvious and intentioal or not (as the writer of Lamenations said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”). This adds layer upon layer of meaning and beauty to a work. However, this is in stark contrast to copying or changing one little detail and calling it your own. I do believe that’s stealing–just another form of plagiarism. It really would add to a work of fabric if, on the selvege, the artist could, say, have ‘”Artist Name” after “Past Artist”‘ when it is the case that their work is very directly influenced by a known artist (or maybe it could say ‘after “Past Unknown Artist”‘ or something similar). I wonder if part of all of this, too, is that fabrics are coming to be seen more and more as works of art in their own right, whereas they were not in the past. Does anyone know about that for sure?

  19. Arshia says:

    i am so happy to see that people are actually talking about this today. i am a graphic design student in a fashion institute and am currently in the process of researching this very problem.

    the simple scenario of two people sourcing the same print and designing a complete range out of that fabric creates a loss for both the companies. so… in order to resolve this issue, and to maintain the copyright of the original fabric, the fashion house should develop a print that retains the same flavor but is completely unique. hence, making is their own and having all legal rights to it.

    also, looking at it from a different perspective. from the customers’ point of view. you go into the market and see two different brands selling merchandise with the same print on it. you would either not buy anything, or would go for the cheaper option. imagine if the style was the same but the print itself was completely different, you would have no dilemma. you either like/buy it or not.

    over the next year i plan to do just that. to create a healthy environment and competition between brands in terms of their prints.

    i would love to hear your views about this as well.

  20. Most countries in the third world never respects intellectual property rights. piracy is so rampant in asian countries.~–