I've wanted to write a blog entry on the latest state of copyright and intellectual property issues in the fashion and sewn products business for a while. I've been watching the assertions of copyright restrictions by indie pattern designers (sewing and knitting) and the appearance of copyright restriction on fabric selvages. I've struggled with how to approach the topic because it can become quite heated very quickly.
As a fashion designer, I like to use printed cotton fabrics in my girls dresses. Over the last several years, I've been watching the rise and popularity of certain fabric print lines and their designers. I've loved the prints they are producing because they have hit upon a formula which is constantly fresh and inspiring. Long gone are the sweet floral rose buds that were so typical for infant clothing. Now there is an explosion of modern, colorful designs that are mixed and matched like crazy.
In the fashion industry there is an assumption that fabric available for sale can be used to make commercially sold products*. We don't usually take the time to ask for permission from every vendor before we design a season. To do so would bog down the process considerably. And let's not forget the concept of the first sale doctrine, which in the United States says the creator of an object loses control of it once the item has been sold**. Even so, I went so far as to ask permission on one fabric design a few years ago because it was designed by a well known scrapbook paper designer. This designer was known to go after individuals who used her scrapbook products to make new products to sell. But when I asked the fabric vendor, they thought I was crazy - of course I could use the fabric for a commercial product.
Well it appears with the rise of celebrity fabric designers***, that is changing. I've been reading of the recent case involving Kate Spain and C&T Publishing/Emily Cier. I won't rehash the whole thing but you can read a good analysis at The Free Motion Quilting Project. With the resulting chaos and ill will that is now floating around the quilting industry, you can see how quickly creativity can be curtailed.
This one situation throws chaos into more than just quilts. There are many childrens clothing designers, accessory makers, and manufacturers who use fabrics from celebrity fabric designers. What's to be done there? I can assure you that the fashion industry as a whole will not stand for it. There is a cost associated with printing up fabric, but it is not as hard to come up with our own designs and print our own fabric as it has been in the past. Those fabric designers need to be careful that they don't alienate the very customers they seek to serve by limiting what can done with the fabric they create. They may loose the very income they seek to protect.
*Generally speaking, it is suggested that a fashion designer not use a fabric print that contains a licensed character such as Mickey Mouse. Doing so crosses into trademark territory and Disney will come after you. There are some designs which are so distinctive that there can be no doubt that the design refers to another brand. So while the first sale doctrine may apply, why would you want to go there? In addition, it is copyright infringement to copy an existing fabric design and print it yourself. Though that gets into murky water because there are many, many fabric designs which are technically in the public domain, though which is and is not public domain is difficult to determine.
**Those statements printed on fabric selvages that limit usage to personal use are probably not legally binding due to the first sale doctrine. Though I'm certain some individuals may actually try to enforce it with lawsuits and threats anyway. If you see it and you have a concern, then just don't buy it. And as mentioned above, some companies will actually come after you.
***Please don't think that the usage of the terms celebrity fabric designers is disparaging. On the contrary, these fabric designers deserve the recognition that comes with their talent. The term celebrity simply refers to their popularity and the expansion of their brand across multiple product lines. Just as there are celebrity chefs, actors, and what not, there can be celebrity fabric designers.