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Compiled by Carolyn Stewart
SBQG Council Rep
SCCQG Membership Chair
Also check the Copyright Office Website at

A copyright exists whenever you create an image, a product, or a design visible to the eye. That is, you have taken it from the status of an idea, which cannot be copyrighted, into a tangible form. Upon its tangible creation, you have the “copyright” to it immediately and automatically.

However, the copyright to your work may be protected by formally registering it. This legally prevents others from using and/or profiting from your original creation. From the Library of Congress/Copyright website comes this information:

“Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:


  To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission."

Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include:


  Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression, Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans;
  Familiar symbols or designs;
  Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring;
  Mere listings of ingredients or contents
  Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
  Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources).

A common occurrence is giving away your copyright privileges without even being aware of it. For example, you take a quilt to a photographer to have pictures or slides made for competition. Now photographers copyright their pictures, which would prevent you from potentially marketing your work through photographs or slides. Make sure you address what rights each will possess. The only way to protect yourself is to prepare this in written form with both parties’ signatures and date. You would want to cover issues such as:


  Can you make additional slides or copies or must you purchase additional supplies from the photographer?
  Is the photographer entitled to any remuneration if your work wins award prizes?
  Is the photographer to be given recognition for the photograph?
  To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  Can the photographed work be used in any way you wish without further remuneration: i.e.,
If the work were chosen for a calendar or note cards to be sold for profit
used in a book to be sold for profit
Used in commercial video as the entry picture?


A similar issue occurs when quilters pay others for machine quilting their pieces. Are the designs that are used copyrighted designs? What if, as one quilter did, you have your piece machine quilted, then enter a competition and it wins a $500 prize for Best Machine Quilting? Who gets the prize AND the money? The Copyright Laws, Section 101 address the specifics of Work for Hire and if you contract any part of your quilt, then you should become acquainted with how to handle the resulting copyright issues.  

Here are some typical and frequently asked questions:

Can I copy a pattern or video someone else bought? No. You are preventing the author from making additional income.

Can I use someone else’s pattern or video? Yes. Once a person has bought a pattern, they can sell it or give it to you. They just can’t make additional copies of it.

Can I copy a pattern out of a book or magazine to use? Generally yes, for your own use. However, the resulting work would be at issue if placed in competition because it is a copy. Even giving credit still puts you at risk. Ask permission for anything other than your own personal use and enjoyment.

Can I copy a magazine, a book, or a video? No. This falls outside the concept of “fair use” as defined in the Copyright Laws. It prevents the author from making additional income on the copyrighted work.

Can I use someone else’s design if I change it somewhat? No. They are protected for their design and any adaptations. The best thing to do is start with your own design, especially if you are planning on competition, selling, or otherwise marketing your work.

I learned things from other teachers and quilters. Does that mean I can’t teach any of these techniques? No. Techniques, processes, ideas, colors, procedures, titles, cannot be copyrighted. As long as you don’t use their materials or original designs, you can teach what you have learned.

What if I want to teach from another person’s book or materials? You must ask permission to use them. Likely the author will agree, especially if each person purchases the required materials. They will specify the limits of their agreement. Always get it in writing.

How long does a copyright last? For the person’s lifetime and 50 years after.

Can quilters now copyright all our old quilt block patterns? No. Old traditional or standard patterns are in the public domain. Individuals can only copyright their specific creation. It might be possible to come up with a new block not generally available before; this could potentially be copyrighted by the individual. Once something goes into the public domain, it cannot be copyrighted again.

How can I find out if something is in the public domain? Contact the Copyright Office at (202) 707-3000.

Can I use coloring books to make applique patterns? Coloring books are also copyrighted works. If you only used one or two, falling within the range of “fair use”, it probably wouldn’t be a problem unless you want to sell the resulting piece or enter it in competition. Then you should ask permission.

What is “fair use?” It generally means one copy or a small part of a copyrighted work for your own personal use. For example, one article from a magazine or one chapter from a book. The concept of Fair Use in the Copyright Laws addresses exceptions for non-profit education, news and commentary, and scholarly research.

What do I do if I think someone has copied my work and is profiting from it? Contact an attorney who is comfortable with the Copyright Laws. Generally a letter from your attorney ordering the offender to cease and desist is enough to stop the infringement. You have the right to demand and/or sue for financial damages.

Can I use the copyright symbol or must I register it first? You may use the symbol immediately upon creation of the piece, indicating that you are claiming the copyright to your work.

There are a  number of excellent articles available for research on copyright. We cannot automatically copy them and put them in the library for public use because they are copyrighted by the magazines. However, we could ask permission and specify the scope of usage. If you would like to do your own research, they are as follows:


Quilters Newsletter Magazine: July-August 1991 p. 20-22
  June 1998 p. 46-47
  July-August 1998 p. 18-19
  September 1998 p. 52-53
  November 1998 p. 59
  May 1999

p. 8

American Quilter: Spring 1999 p. 6, 8, 59
This is not legal advice but simply a compilation of information from a variety of sources.
The articles above will give you much information but if you have further copyright questions, contact the Copyright Office at the following address:

Library of Congress
Copyright Office
Register of Copyrights
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20559-6000