Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sunny and Derivative

Ok, I think my summer break has been long enough. I am pitying the Modern Quilt Guild, who are in a storm of controversy over a recent post about copyright and derivative work. (Edit Sept 2016: The post has been removed now. You can read their new approach here. There is also a link there to the original post.) I know I had more than one heated discussion about copyright when I did the website for my quilt guild. The fact is that current copyright law is out of date, and quilters are not the only ones who think so. This 2013 statement by the US Register of Copyrights sums up well the frustration people are feeling. This is my favourite line:
...if one needs an army of lawyers to understand the basic precepts of the law, then it is time for a new law.
And if you don't think that the current laws are bad for artists, let me remind you of this injustice...

...which you can read about here, if you don't already know it.

An organization like the MCG (or any guild), has to follow the law whether they like it or not. But, I do think MCG's new, hard line refusal to consider "derivative" works for judging at their shows is out of tune with the current understanding of how artistic production really happens.

We all stand on the shoulders of the ones who came before us. As an example, let's consider my (still unfinished) "Sunshine" quilt, which has made a little progress since my last post in June.

Here, and at the top, are a couple of the smaller 9" and 6" churn dash blocks. This time I used Gwen Marston's "liberated" recutting technique to give each unit its own character. On the larger blocks I had used Sujata Shah's curved piecing techniques...

...but honestly it was a lot of work and I thought the curves would get lost in the smaller units anyway.

As far as I know, it was my idea to apply Sujata and Gwen's techniques to a compound block like the churn dash. It's not earthshaking, just a small, incremental expansion on the earlier idea. Since my first post in February, I've noticed that Missouri Star now has a tutorial for a wonky churn dash quilt too. Did they see mine? I don't know. But, their quilt is pretty cute too.

Mine, of course, has the added enhancement of blocks in many sizes. I'm putting them together in sections like this:

This is not a new idea either. My inspiration was the quilt Bohemian Charm...

by Sarah Maxwell and Dolores Smith of Homestead Hearth, and found in my much cherished Sew Scrappy, Vol. 2 from Better Homes and Gardens. The block sizes in this quilt were weird -- 4" and 10" to start -- so a redesign was always on the cards for this one. They also grouped the blocks into rectangular sections, but filled the gaps with squares.

My first plan was to use squares to fill in the gaps too, but after I made the words...

...I realized I could use up those yellow strings I made by mistake, and that would be better all around. So now those strings are more "happy accident" than mistake!

I used Bonnie Hunter's string piecing technique:

The strings are chain pieced onto papers cut to size. I didn't include the seam allowances on the paper, but next time I will, because it would be easier to judge the size that way. They are trimmed when I'm ready to assemble the sections.

Oh, and for those words, I didn't "figure out the math," and I've never read instructions on how to make letters either. I just took yellow and white strips and put them together by eye, same as some people can play music by ear. But the idea to piece letters and words definitely came from photos online.

So, it could be said that this quilt is derived from ideas by Sarah Maxwell, Dolores Smith, Sujata Shah, Gwen Marston, Bonnie Hunter, and probably others too. But I wouldn't expect any of them to knock on my door and say "Hey, I own your quilt. Stop putting pictures of it online." They all had their own sources of inspiration.

I'm not saying this could be an award-winning quilt that the Modern Quilt Guild would refuse to hang in their show. I'm asking you to look at all the meaning and value inherent in the combined influences of the quilts that inspired even this trivial jumble of fabric, and to say that we shouldn't turn our backs on that. Truthfully, I don't think it's possible, but I think it would be a huge loss to try.

Current copyright laws may not accept that art evolves, and the student can outperform the master, but there is nothing stopping quilters from recognizing and celebrating their place in the ongoing discourse of quiltmaking. Eventually, the laws will catch up.

And if you are not now completely exhausted, check out the other blogs at the Ad Hoc Improv Quilters link up, right here!


  1. Wow, I read the Modern Quilt Guild post and as many of the comments as I could stand, and I am overwhelmed. I do think they are going overboard with the definition of "derivative". As for asking friends, neighbors and quilt guild members, who are they to judge? Then again, quilt show judges may read too much into a quilt. Just because a quilt has elements of another's quilt doesn't mean it is "derivative". Asking the original designer if she thinks your quilt is derivative is just asking for trouble, the post's one example to the contrary notwithstanding. I don't know what the answer is, but I do think that the MQG has gone off the deep end on this issue. As you state, do we have to acknowledge all of our quilt ancestors?

    1. The answer is for the MCG to allow derivative works in their judged shows. The criterion should be that the derivative takes the original to a new level, or looks at it from a different perspective, thereby shedding new light on the original idea.

      The idea that a "derivative" is less than the original is the heart of the problem. Evolution is a better word, and a truer understanding of how everything really works.

      I could write significantly more on this! Thanks for the comment, Cynthia, it's nice to be back!

  2. Monica and Cynthia, I agree with you both. I call it Over Kill though. . .Wouldn't it be sad if only ORIGINAL designs would be allowed in a quilt show? Think of how boring a show that would be! What is wonderful about quilt shows is that there is such a mix of EVERYTHING "quilty." What has happened to giving credit and being kind to one another. Not everyone who enters a quilt show is doing it because of the monetary awards.

    1. Well, I do understand that the MCG is trying to carve out a specific style of quiltmaking. But I think their long term survival will depend on their ability to adapt and expand. It would be a shame for them to implode so soon. The Modern movement has brought new life to all forms of quilting.

      But, I agree, an inclusive space with many forms of inspiration is definitely my preference too! Thanks, Terry, it's good to be back. :D

  3. Lovely to have you back, Monica, and a great post. I have been reading the current debate and like your take on it. One of the things I love about quilting is that I can do my own thing and draw on ideas and influences from all over, but still feel rooted in a strong tradition and your churn dashes exemplify how well this can work.

  4. So glad to see you back!

    Now as regards your post, I agree completely and you put it very well. I think the Modern Quilt Guild is going to have a big mess on their hands when it comes time to accept quilts for the next show. It seems to me that just about every technique and idea out there has been done by someone somewhere at sometime. Everything is derivative as far as I can tell.

  5. Thoughtful post, Monica. Thank you!
    I put this on my blog after reading yours. (so, is my post derivative?)
    "The current turmoil of attribution/derivatives/inspiration brought back an issue I had several years ago.
    I saw a simple block used on a blog, scaled it down and re-worked a bit and posted my resulting quilt to my blog. My version was (yes) much better. It was noticed by a publisher who asked if they could include it in their magazine. I said I would ask the blogger for permission and she said no.
    A few months later I found a doll quilt I had made about a decade previously that used the same block. Made long before the blogger posted her block.
    A bit of there is nothing new under the sun.
    The whole experience left me sad.

    I post my designs with the encouragement for readers to use at their pleasure.
    My designs are based on what I think is my own take on traditional patterns and methods, but who knows.
    It is tricky to stay in the law and yet let our individual work and the state of quilting progress. Especially when the law is so vague.
    I hope that others find inspiration here on my blog and run with it."

  6. A great post, Monica. I read it yesterday and needed time to think before commenting. I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment that 'derivative' isn't always less. Great artists have always influenced each other and built on each other's ideas and work. In embroidery the greatest issue seems to arise from teaching - when someone makes their living from teaching using their own designs and others reproduce or adapt and disseminate them. I try hard not to blog in a way that 'gives away' a teacher's design or technique - but even then there is a sense in which the whole point of teaching is to spread knowledge further.
    Thanks for coming back with an impact. It's great to have you back.

    1. Yes, I think that "less" issue is the key to the whole thing. Now I am thinking that derivatives are actually crucial to the ongoing evolution of an art. I think another post is coming...

      Thanks as always for your thoughtful comment and support! It's good to be back. :D

  7. There are only so many ways to cut fabric and sew join it back together. I try to acknowledge what sparked my quilts. Like you, I wrote a post about a method I thought I'd invented only to find someone published it in a magazine a couple of months later and then Missouri Star had a video the following year. I didn't copy them nor they me. Wow, great minds think alike.
    Your yellows are always so scrumptious. Soft and buttery, never harsh or acidic.
    I have the same tendency with Sujata's method; I deliberately curve the cuts. This next year, I'm working on straightening them, but still without a ruler.
    Thanks for linking with AHIQ. I'm glad to be back after a summer off, too.

  8. I like your yellow work in progress and I like the way you've written about this. I tend to think that our work is generally inspired by all that we've seen and learned before, from the first sampler quilt we made, the quilt shows we visit, to the blogs we're learning new techniques from. It's a great big creative melting pot.


I'm told Blogger has been bouncing some comments, so if it happens to you I'm sorry! But the settings look right so I can't explain it. In any case, thanks for reading!

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