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.