Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What's really fair?

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.


  1. i think the reason why learning about amy butler "re-working" that chrysanthemum print bothers me so much is because of her previous rules on using her prints. does it not seem ironic to you that she wouldn't let consumers use her fabric to make items to sell but she will re-color a print and mark it as her own with no problems? is this NOT the same thing?

    just because she may not be able to find the original designer does not justify that she can do whatever she wants with the design. and, according to your post i could take her fabric prints [or anyone else's] and turn them into re-colored wallpaper or sationary or whatever else my heart desires and then sell it as my own. right?

  2. My point exactly. It seems like a big double standard, and it just doesn't look good from a PR level for Amy at the very least.

    With regard to your second point, however, I think there is a distinction between a print that is current and one that is vintage. If you turned one of Amy's (original) prints into wallpaper, I would think she would have some legal recourse since the print is new and traceable. On the other hand, if you made that vintage tablecloth into wallpaper and could prove she had used the same print in her fabric, I doubt she could do anything about it.

    In the end, it's the apparent double standard aspect of Amy's legal policy that I think is just really unfortunate.

  3. When I used to have a vintage clothing shop online I would sell prints to clothing companies. This is very common, like you said, there are shops in NY that do just this. The feedsack fabric on ebay isn't going for the big bucks because quilters are just dying to use them. They're being sold to all sorts of designers who rework them and sell them. Sometimes barely even rework them, like a lot of the Japanese fabric. I'm ambivalent too and actually very happy that the designs are made available again, in any iteration.

    I'm surprised people are surprised by the chrysanthemum pattern. Amy Butler's designs are sooo vintage inspired, and evidentally, quite literally. They've always looked to me like resized & recolored reproductions. But I don't think that takes anything away from her work.

    Her restrictive sales policy however, definitely does!

  4. Anonymous1:48 PM

    Get inspiration from others, but make your own work! Copying is dull.

  5. I think you highlighted some important things in your post that I haven't seen in many of the other flurries about this. One is intention/competition. It might or might not fit the letter of the law if I make something that is similar to something you make depending on the circumstances BUT the idea of copyright is so that designers/artists and the people who produce their work are able to profit from it - other people aren't allowed to just make a bunch of copies and sell them for a little less and make your product unsellable. It does seem much nastier to take a current product and make your own profit off of it on the basis of the popularity of the original you are copying - it can undermine the profit or status of the original and/or create an environment in which it's not worth anyone's time or expense to produce new and interesting things.

    However, as you also point out - how nice that that print is available again! It's lovely and her colorways are lovely. It's a unique print in the current market. Available as a vintage item to a few buyers via garage sale and eBay doesn't count as "available" and it's not even really the "same market" - used linens and new home sewing fabric.

    I think that the availability of the designer/traceability of the design is also important.

    It's interesting to hear you talk about it as a designer - at the end of the day, it's design, not fine art. Design is an art unto itself, but putting together a collection of prints that fits certain parameters (color, scale, variety, etc.) to work together and with other things in the market and and and... It seems less horrible to me to know that Amy Butler looked at a print and reworked it than to go into an art gallery and see, for example, large canvases with big blocks of color with soft edges and have the artist claim not to know the work of Rothko.

    I think there's also a story here about broader markets and increased communication. I think it's easier than ever for people to access "vintage" stuff and easier than ever to connect the dots, what with everyone on the 'net.

  6. patty bolgiano12:07 PM

    I hate to say this as it will give away my age, lol, Amy Butler prints are the same prints that were out in the 70's and late 60's and maybe even early 80's...time flies! She has simply recolored them or taken elements from the 60-70 it is a bit retro but none the less the motifs are very much what I saw growing up. There are plenty of free patterns out there. Take a look at Dover Publishing and you can find tons of art book, design ideas, etc from their royalty free stock. I even have disks of beautiful flowers that will one day become something.

    Patty in Balmy Baltimore

  7. Thanks for the perspective! Very interesting. I couldn't help but think though that just because it's done all the time doesn't make it right, or legal.

    But! I am torn between wanting all the vintage prints I love to available again and respecting copyright.
    Then on the other hand I detest the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 and don't have much motivation to respect it.

    Designers should at least be up front about which prints are reproductions and which are original. Slapping your own name without acknowledging the print's origins is more than a little squirrely to me. And then having the nerve to slap restrictions on the secondary market (when the fabric is bought retail or wholesale, I don't care) is downright wrong.

  8. I do think this debate has shown up a scary ignorance of copyright legislation in the textile design world, whether on the influence of vintage designs or in how a fabric useage licence can be enforced. I worry that people do this everyday without actually knowing if it's legal or not.

    There is so definitely a niche for affordable advice there if any IPR lawyers are reading...

  9. To tell you the truth, I just fine the whole thing fascinating. I agree with P; since there are so many lawyers in training that have craft blogs. Here is your chance to work in an area of interest to you, legal craft/fabric stuff.

  10. We did the same thing with swimwear design. Sometimes we shopped a little shop in Burbank that sold vintage fabric for reworking into a line. Other times I was restricted by budget reasons and couldn't make new screens so I had to recolor existing print designs from the textile converters. I agree that that's a skill all of its own ... making an older print look new again simply with newer color combos and new silhouettes. And strike-offs never seemed to be right the first time around. Especially since swimwear color palettes are so different from the rest of the apparel world.

    Besides, I always thought that Amy Butler's whole claim to fabric fame was recoloring vintage prints, putting a modern spin to them. Did she ever say that these were original designs? Or did I miss something along the way?

  11. I can't believe this, but I just picked up a large piece of this EXACT same fabric at a vintage shop, only the background is bright yellow, the flowers are white, and the leaves are hot pink. I KNEW I recognized it!

  12. Thank you so much for this really thoughtful, informative post. I find it all very interesting.

    I love vintage fabrics, and one of the reasons I have taken up working with fabrics is because I fell in love with the vintage reproduction fabrics. However, those designs are known to be reproductions, and the copyright issue never even occurred to me because, I suppose I assumed the rights were purchased.

    I think the reason people are rubbed a little wrong about the Amy Butler fabrics is that there is ignorance about fabric design, and an assumption that her designs are original. I mean, I never had any clue about the practices you just described.

    It doesn't bother me that vintage fabrics are being reworked and made available to all of us. I think it's just nice to know what you're getting so you can appreciate the textiles for what they are.I also don't think it in any way minimizes Amy's talent. She has a wonderful eye for color and design. Everyone draws inspiration from somewhere, right? Those vintage fabrics inspire me too.

    However, I do agree that the restrictions on use of the fabric are pretty lame.

  13. Thanks for writing this Leisl. Reading along, still thinking. . . .

  14. Amy Butler2:22 PM

    I hope my note finds everyone well, I wanted to write in hopes of clearing up a lot of misunderstanding. Thanks  for taking time out to read my letter. 

    I have some positive changes on my web site faqs that I'm very happy to share! These changes have been in place for a few weeks but I don't think a lot of folks know about it  yet . First I'd like to say how thankful I am that open forums like this exist where we can all talk to each other.  

    I know there has been a lot of continued concern about  the use of my fabrics.  I've received several  emails and  I want you to know that  I care deeply about what my studio does and how it effects other people.  It's been step by step, but I feel like we have finally landed in the place we need to be. I apologize that it's not been clear cut which is the unfortunate result of our trying to figure things out.  Our previous  faqs were about trying to keep the fabrics special for niche retailers and sewers.  This was not decided with the fabric companies for financial gain, in actuality, a lot less fabric was sold.  We were trying to prevent over-saturation in the market place among larger manufacturers. In the end these efforts proved to be too complicated. It's been a very significant and difficult learning process and I'm sorry that we did not respond faster.

    I regret that our faqs  have caused so much disruption and I am truly sorry for the difficulties this has caused. It was never my intention to harm anyone's business, and I mean this very sincerely. We try our best to make the right decisions, yet sometimes the best solutions remain elusive until you can see the whole picture. 

    Moving forward the good news is my fabrics are now completely available in any form that makes
    sense for you,  and that includes being able to buy my fabrics wholesale for manufacturing.

    I know the selvedge on my fabrics reads " for Non- Commercial  Use Only " but that will be removed
    in future printings of my material. The " for Non Commercial Use Only  " is not in effect, so it's totally ok
    to use those fabrics at any time.  Please visit my web site www.amybutlerdesign.com to read the full
    faqs and if we've left any questions un-answered, please let me know, it's very important.

    I also wanted to share my fabric design process and I've added a link to Quilter's Buzz so you can read all about it.

    Please know that I want everyone to be successful and enjoy what they are doing. I'm continually flattered and humbled by the interest and enthusiasm in people working with the fabrics I design!
    There are no more roadblocks for any of us,  and here's to moving forward in peace and doing what
    we all do best. 

    I wish everyone the greatest joy in their creative endeavors and business!
    If I can answer any other questions for you, please write to me.

    All My Best,