CHESTERVILLE -- A quilting and copyright controversy is stitching itself into the fabric of Ontario country fairs.
Organizers of traditional "homecraft" competitions -- a fixture at rural and not-so-rural fairs -- fear the matter could put a crimp in the number of quilt entries. For a Waterloo-based pattern designer, however, it's high time the quilt-making community got around to recognizing its simple obligations under the law.
Threads of the quilt kerfuffle lead to August 2004, when designer Kathleen Bissett fired off correspondence to the Central Canada Exhibition. Her pattern, Garden Delight, appeared on a quilt in the show that year -- without her permission and without acknowledging her name, or the name of the design, on the label.
The quilt in question, an entry from the Greely and Manotick Station Women's Institute, won first prize of $25, according to Lyn Presley of the CCE's homecraft committee.
The maker had purchased Bissett's pattern "at a shop in Osgoode," said Presley, a resident of Manotick.
Bissett's subsequent letter, received via e-mail, "implied" that legal action would be taken against the CCE for copyright infringement, she told The AgriNews Feb. 3, describing the tone as "nasty."
"I was just taken aback by the whole thing," she said.
However, the fallout has prompted a change at SuperEx's quilt competition.
Last year, the CCE established a new policy requiring the name of the pattern and designer to be indicated with the quilt. Quilt makers are also forbidden from displaying a pattern without the designer's permission, although the CCE doesn't ask for proof that the quilter has sought it.
The policy, laid out waiver-style at the top of the entry form, also states that prize money "is a matter of negotiation between the design owner and the competitor."
"In discussions with our lawyer, we felt ... that we've done our due diligence," Presley said of the policy. "I think we've covered ourselves. We got the legal opinion -- and it cost us a whack of money."
The quilt competition only draws five or six entries, she said.
Bissett confirmed for The AgriNews that she had been prepared to sue over the issue -- and spent "several hundred dollars" in legal fees -- but was otherwise satisfied by the CCE's updated policy.
"I think it's a beginning. I'd like to do more active educating ... but something had to happen to wake people up," she said, adding that fairs and exhibitions are among "the biggest infringers" on designer copyright.
Bissett co-chairs the Grand National Quilt Show in Waterloo and has taught pattern design as far afield as China, Japan and South Africa.
She learned that Garden Delight was on display at the 2004 SuperEx from her Montreal-based daughter, who attended the event and recognized the design. She took digital photos and e-mailed them to her mother.
No one had asked permission to display the pattern at SuperEx, Bissett said, so she resolved to do something about it. "I said, Enough. It has to start someplace.'"
Because of the promotional value, designers generally welcome having their patterns shown at fairs, so long as they're "properly acknowledged" on the label, she said, and have been asked permission.
Buying the pattern design does not entitle a quilter to "copy" it without permission, she explained. That includes showing it off in public competition. "Display is a form of copying" and goes beyond the definition of personal use, she said.
The ripples have gone across the province: The Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies is drafting copyright "guidelines" for the coming 2006 fair season in Ontario, according Mary Fisher, past of president of the organization's homecraft division.
"We're working on it now," said Fisher, of Winchester. "We're trying to take pro-active measures here. I don't think that many of us realized it was such an issue."
Both Fisher and Presley expressed concern the controversy could have something like a chilling effect on quilt competitions.
"Any of the new designs out there, the people are going to be leery about using them," said Fisher. "The smaller fairs we have in District 1, they're quite concerned this is going to eliminate the hand-quilting altogether."
But Bissett pointed out that "a ton of designs in the public domain" are still available for quilters to choose from.
Her emphasis is on educating quilters, she said, "because I think most of the infringing is a matter of lack of knowledge.
"I don't think it's malicious."
After speaking to The AgriNews by telephone, Bissett also answered questions via e-mail.
Q: Were you prepared to sue the Ottawa Ex after you found out the winning quilt there in 2004 was one of your designs?
A: When I wrote to the Ottawa Ex administration I clearly said that I would prefer to take educational action rather than legal action. I was prepared to take legal action had it become necessary.
Q: Are you satisfied with the waiver arrangement (the new policy) they've put in place at the (Ottawa) Ex?
A: I think the waiver is a beginning. I would like to see more done. I would be happy to help with copyright education in this province and beyond.
Q: Would you deny anyone permission to enter one of your designs in a homecraft competition, so long as they asked?
A: I would not deny permission as long as there is proper acknowledgement given and that it states that the quilter has my permission to display the quilt.
Q: Do you believe it would be reasonable for a quilt designer to make his or her permission conditional on getting a share of prize money won by the quilter?
A: I do think that is reasonable, but with the country fairs the prize money is not great.
I think it is more important to educate everyone involved about copyright.
Q: Do you personally want a share of prize money when your designs are used, and win, in competition? Or is this really about courtesy and respect, and the principle of the thing, rather than money?
A: It is really about the law and ethics. Infringement is illegal. Courtesy and respect are part of ethics in my opinion.
Q: I've been told that quilting, historically, was a communal, shared activity with designs handed down from one quilter to the next. Do notions of copyright violate this heritage and spirit of the craft?
A: You are correct about the historical aspects of quiltmaking. I do not think the heritage of the art has been violated. There are a great many designs that are in the public domain. However, today quilting is also a business. There are many designers in the quilting community who make their living with their art. There is room for the free sharing of designs and for the protection of current designers.