If you are an avid reader of craft blogs you may have noticed recent heated discussions regarding the legal aspects of using and selling items made from designer fabrics. Dioramarama wrote a post approximately a year ago regarding this topic, and the discussion recently resurfaced at Tumbling Blocks as well as a few other blogs.
I was catching up on the discussion this past weekend and came across another post via Tumbling Blocks in which Dorie wrote about a vintage tablecloth she purchased that bears an uncanny resemblance to the above Chrysanthemum print from Amy Butler’s Belle collection. (Poor Amy, I don’t know her personally, but she and Heather Ross have certainly taken a beating lately.)
Anyway, this discovery is sure to generate another round of controversy and has gotten me thinking about the topic over the past few days.
In my prior life as a clothing designer I worked with a lot of prints. For the most part, these prints existed as part of a larger line--one or two prints in a collection that consisted of many other solids and patterns. When we developed prints for our line, not only did the print need to look great but it also needed to sit well with the rest of the collection. The color palette, the feeling, and the overall look of the line needed to coordinate in a way that would suggest outfits to the customer. When the clothing hit stores, it needed to clearly communicate the inspiration and feeling that the company wanted to convey for that season. And sometimes finding that perfect print was tremendously difficult.
Fabric designers deal with this aspect of coherence in their lines as well. Not only does a collection of prints need to feature a certain number of fabrics within a particular color palette, but the line should have prints of various sizes and visual textures that work together as a whole. Some of the prints should be large and bold. Others might need to be smaller, subtle, reflect an overall emphasis on one or two colors, or convey a tonal feeling.
From my own experiences, I know that creating this visual coherence can be extremely difficult. You might know exactly what scale or pattern type is missing from a line, but creating that particular item can be tremendously elusive. You might draw, paint, or describe to an artist the feeling you're trying to achieve, but the final print just doesn’t look right, either by itself or as part of the overall collection.
In the design business, it's not at all uncommon to shop a vintage textile collection for inspiration. Many small companies exist exclusively to sell or rent vintage textiles and clothing for use by designers. And it's not uncommon for a designer to rent an old piece, dramatically rework it or make more subtle color or layout changes to the pattern, and release that pattern as a new print. Within the business this isn't considered stealing someone else's design; it's commonly accepted that you are changing the design by recoloring it and fitting that pattern into a larger scheme, which is your collection as a whole.
Personally, I’m ambivalent about the practice. I've certainly done it myself, and I can tell you that tweaking that pattern to find the perfect colors and layout can be an art in itself. I've struggled with strike-off after strike-off to get just the right feel for a print. So it really isn’t simply a matter of “copying” the print; just the recoloring aspect alone can dramatically change a print from its original appearance, and getting the print to look "right" takes a great deal of time and effort.
I’m not a lawyer, and I really don’t know how this practice would be perceived in a legal situation. But I suspect that there must be a statute of limitations for an older print--especially if it's not copyrighted. (Most prints aren't.) It would be tremendously difficult to track down the original designer or manufacturing company for many older prints, which frequently don’t have a label or any identifying marks to direct someone to its origin. And it would seem to me that if the print is being used in an entirely new manner (tablecloth vs. bolt of fabric, wallpaper, mosaic, etc.) it would not be considered to be directly competing with the original print.
Certainly, there have been many situations in which a direct knock-off of a pattern or print has been pursued and upheld for copyright infringement. And well it should. But when it comes to an older, less traceable pattern I don’t know where the line should be drawn.
All this is to say, I guess, that I completely understand why and how a vintage tablecloth could be appropriated and remade as a cotton fabric for sale within a larger collection of fabrics. I would imagine that any designer prefers to create his or her own original prints, but circumstances and requirements might certainly influence a designer to recycle or revise an older print.
Frankly, in this case I'm glad that the original print was found and used to create a new print. It's a terrific print, and I’m glad that it exists again in the market, where unfortunately many rather unattractive prints have reigned for a long time.
All the same, I don't know how the original designer of that print might feel about it. And the customer might feel betrayed or cheated upon discovering the original--especially considering the legal restrictions that the new designer has placed (and since rescinded) on the product.
It's a complicated issue with both legal and ethical implications. The recent discussion about the topic has been good, but it's important to recognize all the facets before making a judgment.