My husband and I were having a conversation yesterday revolving around creativity, originality, and ownership of such. The conversation began because I was feeling frustrated from seeing quilters ripping off other quilters and not giving credit where credit is due as well as seeing the seemingly same 12 quilts being done over and over and marketed as original designs. (In my defense it was a full moon, and full moons tend to make me a bit more on edge, (crabby) about things. Maybe some of my ancestors came over from Transylvania, who knows.)
My husband was sympathetic, but also, (and wisely) reintroduced the notion that nothing that we come up with is really original. He referred back to a TED Talk given by Kirby Ferguson, based on Ferguson's 4-part Everything is a Remix series. The premise is that nothing in the creative world is really, truly original. Everything is a remix of what has come before us. And maybe it's time that we really started to admit this to ourselves and others and just give credit where credit is due, and keep building upon the creative works that have come before us, creating a better world for all, without getting ourselves all worked up about ownership.
All of this sent me on another long reflection of where I really stand on this, or more importantly, where do I want to stand on this... as in what type of world do I want to help create and be a part of?
I want to live in a world where creativity is encouraged to thrive. Constantly screaming, "Hey, that's my idea, hands off!" limits creativite expression the ability to grow, expand and evolve.
I want to live in a world where people can make a good living off of their work while at the same time helping others to tap into their own creativity and also thrive. Now this is a much tougher issue, and we can get into all sorts of gray areas...
Since most of us reading this blog are quilters, or sewers/crafters in one way or another, let us take for example a quilt pattern that is for sale. That pattern took time to be designed, written, illustrated, and marketed. If someone buys that pattern, then makes 50 copies to distribute to their guild members, (instead of encouraging their guild members to buy the pattern for themselves) that is hurting the livelihood of the pattern designer. That is why patterns can and in my opinion, should be protected under copyright law. Outside of being allowed to give away or resell the original pattern one time, (you bought it, you used it, you have no further use for it. So you pass it on to a friend, or sell it say at a garage sale... that is allowed) ... other then that, you can't reproduce the pattern for sale or to give away under copyright laws.
However, the person buying the pattern should be able to make the quilt and do as they wish with it afterwards, shouldn't they? After all the quilt that they just made is theirs, isn't it? (Sort of like giving a gift... once you give it, it is the receiver's gift to do with it as they wish). And so, that would include selling the quilt for profit. (Technically from my limited understanding of copyright law, it is only the pattern that is protected, not any items made from it.)
But many patterns say you can't sell any items made from said pattern. Is this really allowed? Should it be? Shouldn't it be? It's a real debate, and one I can see both sides of. In fact I have put those terms on some of my patterns that I sell, and left them off on some others... it really is a tricky catch 22 in many ways.
(For the record, this whole discussion with my husband, as well as the ensuring rabbit hole it thus led me down, has made me clarify my terms, which now are that, the copyright is on the pattern, illustrations,writing, photos... none of those things may be copied or reproduced for sale or group use. Items made from the pattern, (which would fall under licensing rights) may be sold. However that would be on a small-scale basis... what one person, (the buyer of the pattern) was able to make and sell. Factory or mass produced items from the pattern are prohibited.)
In the best of worlds, everyone would be ethical in giving credit back where credit is due, and also would work hard to add and build upon what inspires them, for this is what will promote a better world for all of us. (Think of it in terms of creative evolution which will lead us, according to Mr. Ferguson, to "social evolution").
Again, in Kirby Ferguson's own words:
"We are not self-made. We are dependent on one another. Admitting this to ourselves isn't an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness, it's a liberation from our misconceptions."
I think that giving credit where credit is due, is much more likely to happen once we start taking those above words to heart. And maybe it will help stop people from feeling like it's not ok to be influenced and inspired by others. We can't help but be inspired.
Of course, there is always the possibility that there will always be folks who just blatantly rip off other peoples creative ideas without putting any effort into building it and morphing it and evolving it into the next creative stage. I am not talking about someone who just wants to re-create someone else's design for pleasure. Or for experience. Both are fine pursuits and doing so has been a teaching tool for all of time. I am talking specifically about those that wish to prosper financially or be rewarded in some external way. These people have no vested interest in true creativity or self-growth or growth of this world as a whole. Basically one could liken them to bottom feeders. How to deal legally with the likes of them may keep the whole copyright, licensing and patent laws a very confusing and complicated legal area.
Going back to quilt designs and quilters though... what about quilt designs that are clearly derived from old standard blocks, but marketed as original designs? How is that fair? Who does one credit? Shouldn't we credit all the unnamed quilters that came before us, giving us their vision, and inspiration? I think we should embrace our quilting ancestors and sing their praises from the roof tops. Modern really ain't so modern, but that is a whole other topic. (But since I brought it up, I really am getting increasingly confused as to what defines a "Modern Quilt" as it seems to me to be getting narrower and narrower, but that just may be my normal state of confusion, and I am now digressing into a whole other topic.)
Back to the original topic... Mr. Ferguson states in Part Three of the Remix series that the basic elements of creativity are "Copy, Transform and Combine". Those three elements are what brings us our inventions, art, literature, music, movies, etc. We take various ideas that have come before, transforming them with our own creative input. Then we combine these various ideas in new ways, all in order to arrive at something something new.
All of that however still brings up yet another question... how original must something be to take it from clearly being a copy of another's work, a derivative piece of another's work, or something that may have been influenced by other(s) work, but is also clearly something created with fresh eyes and vision. And ultimately who decides that?
I have no answers, and it seems to me that the legal laws that try and define that are so thick with layers that they are hard to enforce on any constant or fair basis. This brings us to what Mr. Ferguson refers to as "System Failure" in Part Four of Everything is a Remix series. No doubt about it, we need to find a solution and it's a vitally important conversation, and one that we need to keep having.
So, for the record and in case you missed me saying it before or if I was ever neglect in saying it at all...
I originally became interested in quilting, (approximately 21 years ago) after reading the book
The Quilters: Woman and Domestic Art, an Oral History, by Patricia J. Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen. I read it and re-read it. Their stories still resonate with me.
In my beginning quilting days I was first influenced by antique Amish and Mennonite quilts. And then soon influenced by Nancy Crow, Terrie Hancock Mangat, Jane Burch Cochran, and Wendy Huhn, Jane Sassaman, Mary Lou Weidman, Roberta Horton, Susan Shie, Diana Swim Wessel and Jane Dunnewold. (Seeing their work was my first realizations of what a quilt could be and gave me the permission to explore and experiment as I learned.)
Viewing the quilt The Sower, by Denise Burge, up close and personal, blew my socks off. To this day I think it is one of the best I have ever seen. Although I can't think of anything that I have ever made that was directly influenced by it, it no doubt had a powerful impact on me and thus may one day directly or indirectly influence something that I will produce. Regardless, it has never left my heart.
An important learning experience and most definite influence in working in an improvisational manner, as well as with solids, came from reading Gwen Marston's fabulous book Liberated Quiltmaking back when it first came out in the mid '90's.
Reading Liberated Quiltmaking set me back on a still evolving path to re-visit those antique Amish and Mennonite quilts, but this time really focusing on ones that were improvised as opposed to precision pieced. Those quilts also re-enforced a desire to work with solids.
And from there I was led to explore any utilitarian and improvised quilt that I came across, including but not limited to the works from the Gee's Bend quilters. (Seeing the Gee's Bend quilts in person was akin to a religious experience for me.)
The stories from The Quilters, as well as those from the old Gee's Bend quilter's and the Amish and Mennonite quilts have all directly influenced me in how I look at my rural surroundings and allow myself to glean inspiration from it, just as they were all influenced by their rural surroundings. Through them, I have learned to look at my own surroundings with a more creative and absorbing eye.
I have also been strongly influenced by images I have seen of antique boro cloth, (mostly originating from Sri Threads) and anything dealing with pojagi and kantha quilting.
And last but not least, over the years I, (and thus my work, whether directly or indirectly) have been inspired and influenced by, 1950's si-fy, mid-century esthetics, atomic art, Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange, Frank Lloyd Wright, Josef Albers, James Castle, Edward Gorey, Elizabeth Layton, Georgia O'Keeffe, Lynn Whipple, Mary Engelbreit, vintage coloring book illustrations, vintage game boards, worn and weathered architecture, rusty things, and, (whew) by the quilted and textile works of Denyse Schmidt, India Flint and Janet Bolton, (the later of which really opened my eyes to the power of the individual hand stitch, placement of fabric and the magnificent possible power in the small.
I am sure that I forgotten some, or never new the names of some, and I know that I have absorbed many more bits from many more sources, but this, for now, is the most complete and concise list that my brain can come up with. To each of them, I give a long over-due and much heart felt Thank You.