This is the story of how a bad thing happened, and a good thing happened because of it. But a big part of the story is how you can keep that bad thing from happening in the first place. It takes two of us to tell the story, so we agreed to write it together and post it on both of our blogs.
Melanie: I’m Melanie McNeil and I write the blog Catbird Quilt Studio. I design my own quilts, mostly medallion quilts. And I help teach other people to design, too. Part of that is showing and describing my process as I work, and part is figuring out how to do things, and then creating tutorials. I enjoy the geometry of quilts, including the math. If someone knows how to do the math, they don’t need other people’s patterns, and they are more powerful because of it.
Lorna: I’m Lorna McMahon and I blog at Sew Fresh Quilts. I design and make quilts and, after testing, offer the patterns for sale. I offer basic quilt making information as well as a variety of free quilt alongs. And host the Let’s Bee Social Wednesday linky party as a way for other quilt bloggers to meet up each week, to connect and to share what they are working on.
Melanie: So the bad thing that happened — the story starts well before that. It starts in early 2014. I wanted to use a square-in-a-square block in a quilt, the kind of block that is called an “economy block.” I didn’t know how to do the math of creating them, and I wondered if someone else had a tutorial out there that would show me. I looked at lots of quilters’ blogs. Several had tutorials on how to make a specific size of block. Some were by paper piecing and some were by cutting patches for their own size of block. None of them were generic with the math included. So I wrote one.
It explains the math (which is actually very cool) and also gave a cheat sheet for people who want to make one of several sizes of blocks without doing the math. Almost since I posted the tutorial, it’s been my most-viewed piece.
Lorna: I took on a project where a quilt fabric company sent me fabric to make a quilt. I really should know by now that this is not what I want to do. Yet, it is hard to resist the idea of being sent fabric to use. It’s just that you must then use only the fabric they have sent. I have long struggled with using prints. And this project was all prints with no solids or “reads like a solid” in the mix to break things up.
I had committed to making something and knew these prints would not be suitable for my usual style. They would not work for me to design my typically pieced block. So I started looking for an easy way to just get something made and chose a traditional block.
I looked up a tutorial to make those blocks. Made those blocks. Put it together. And my quilt was finished. But I was not proud of the quilt and dreaded posting about it. I wanted to offer something more and decided to add a tutorial to the post. But I was lazy and feeling low about the whole experience.
I found Melanie’s Economy Block tutorial online and then – I stole that tutorial. Now an explanation – not that I am attempting to excuse what I did, but rather to attempt to describe the reasons behind the why I did what I did. No, I did not simply copy and paste the tutorial. I took my own photos. Made my own charts. Omitted the math formula because I wanted the tutorial to be simpler. And did not really change much concerning the written instructions. There really isn’t much you can do to change how you say, “Place fabric A on fabric B and sew a seam”. But even if I had found a completely unique way of writing it…. It was still wrong. It was still stealing. If nothing else, at the very least, I would have stolen the style of how that tutorial was written. At the time, I must have felt that these changes would make it “less wrong”.
And I published it without another thought. That is until I received an email requesting that I remove that tutorial.
Melanie: Um. It wasn’t really a request. Recently I wanted to post about a new cool thing I found out about economy blocks, a math thing. And I googled the term just to see if there was anything new out there. The third item on the list was Lorna’s tutorial. My tutorial. I knew it was mine because I knew there was nothing else out there like it at the time I wrote it.
I was mad. And I sent her an email and commented on the post and put up a blog post of my own, asking my readers to demand she remove it. I didn’t mince words. ugh. Embarrassing. I do not always react well when I am mad, and this was a prime example of it.
Lorna: I emailed back a reply right away. I apologized and complied immediately. I did not go to the links provided in the email which would have enabled me to compare the tutorials. Even if they would not have been considered by some to be without question the same, I knew what I had done was wrong. And I was able to freely admit that. But that was not enough.
Melanie had written a post about it on her blog prior to me reading her email. But I did not get a chance to read her blog post. When I sent my apology, she edited her post. But there were comments on her blog, naming me and the tutorial I had posted. And that bothered me. Why? Why did that bother me? Selfishness again. I wanted the whole thing to simply go away.
I had apologized and deleted the tutorial. Shouldn’t this have been handled just between the two of us? No. She had every right to post about it on her blog. She did nothing wrong. And I deserved to be “named and shamed”.
Melanie: I’m gonna break in here and say “yes,” I should have first just emailed Lorna. Even if that in particular had been ugly because of my ugly mad, it would have been better to do that in private. And I’m incredibly sorry that I made it public before first contacting her. It really wasn’t fair in any way.
Lorna again: At the time, did I not know what I was doing was wrong? I had never done this in school. I knew that it was wrong to take someone else’s work, change it around a little, use a few different words. Why did I do it? That is something that I have been questioning of myself ever since.
I thought about my children. How would I feel if they did something like this in school now? How would I react? What would I do to make it clear they understood that this was wrong? Well, I would talk to them and hope that they learned their lesson of course, but I wouldn’t punish them severely. Lesson learned. And I felt I deserved that understanding too.
Then I read a piece in our newspaper about a police officer that told an inappropriate joke. He offended those in his presence and was reported. Now he is being put through a “process”. In his interview, initially I felt for him. You do one thing wrong and you are judged for that one thing, no matter how many good or positive things you did before. This is the one you are now known for. You have lost people’s trust and respect. And you cannot take it back. You cannot undo it. You cannot make it right. Then he said something about how if he was disciplining his children, if they were in his situation, he would “leave the sledge hammer in the garage”.
And it dawned on me….
I am not a child. I am a grown woman. I know better. I deserve the punishment. Because what I did was wrong. I was not afraid to admit it to the one person that I had hurt directly. I wholeheartedly apologized. I did not try to diminish what I had done. I did not try to deny it. But what I was now afraid to do was to admit it to everyone else. Afraid to lose followers. Afraid to lose sales. Afraid to lose face.
I would never have taken a person’s pattern and copied it in this way. I would not like, and have not liked, the experience of having someone copy one of my patterns in this way. It’s happened to me with blog posts. It’s happened to me when my Elephant Parade had been printed by someone else in a quilt magazine. Why did I not think of this when I took the tutorial? Why did I not simply state “This is where I found a great tutorial for making this block” and provide a link? Selfishness. And a big ego.
It took me a while to go through a range of emotions that started with selfishness, shame and fear of this coming out to everyone else. “Everyone else” includes you, if you are reading this. I wronged you too. I took someone’s work and told you it was mine. I lied to you. And I am apologizing to you now, too.
I am over the fear of losing friends. Losing followers. Losing sales. Losing respect. If all those things happen, they happen. I will go on from here as a better person. I have learned a great lesson. And I could not go on without writing this post.
Melanie: It was a bad thing that happened. She did the wrong thing, and I reacted both wrongly and out of proportion. Bad happened.
But then something amazing and good happened. Lorna and I started to email, and we found that we actually like each other. And we both love to write and analyze what we do and why and how we do it. And I think we both understand how such a thing can happen, even as an exception to our normal behavior.
We both wanted to write this post together, because the main subject of using someone else’s work as your own is important to both of us. As we emailed, we discussed — how many? — lots of situations of our own or that we’d seen where whether and how to give credit isn’t always clear. I know I fail at it on the edges, even though I try to do the right thing. So I know for people who aren’t thinking about it, it’s easy to do someone wrong.
Lorna: It was a bad thing that happened. Bottom line is – I did do the wrong thing. It was helpful for me to do more than simply apologize for what I had done. Through our email thread it became apparent to me that I also owed Melanie an explanation. Not excuses, but a real analyzation of what had caused me to do what I had done and to override what I knew was wrong.
And that is where the healing began. I was introduced to the kind and generous person that Melanie is. Through our shared emails, and as I explored her blog, I could see that she deserved the respect I had not provided her with. And I am so grateful that she was willing to make this turn into something good. At the very least, we have become friends. But we also have a desire to help others avoid the pain and hurt that was caused.
Melanie and Lorna: In a way, the first part of this post is selfish on both of our parts, confessing our sins, so to speak. If you’ve gotten this far, we’d like to wrap up this post with a positive ending and give you some helpful information.
What are some ways to respect ownership of other people’s work? They include both giving credit appropriately and not using someone else’s work without permission.
- Instead of writing a new post to explain something, if you have already found a well written tutorial, simply provide a link to that tutorial. And you may even want to go the extra mile – contact the author and let them know how much you enjoyed their post and tell them you would like to provide a link to it.
- Have you seen a quilt that you liked while searching online? Don’t share that photo on your blog without first asking the person who has posted it online. If they are willing to allow you to share the photo on your blog, always provide a link to the maker.
- Even if a quilt is antique and the maker is long gone, photos of the quilt may be copyright-protected and not in the public domain. Someone owns the quilt, and someone owns the photo. Museums often provide photos freely, but some do not. Check their policy before sharing photos.
- Some quilt shows and exhibitions invite you to photograph. Others request you don’t. Please honor that request. For those that allow it, take a picture of both the quilt and the maker’s name card so you can give credit correctly. If you want to share the photos, get permission from the maker first.
- Sometimes our inspirations are diffused — we like a set of colors or the idea of something, or several things. But sometimes our inspirations are specific and unique. Again, check with the source if possible, and regardless, give credit for it.
- Copying a pattern someone else bought is stealing from the pattern designer. If you like the pattern enough to make it, and to pay for the fabrics that go into it, do the right thing and pay for the pattern, too.
- Just as copying a pattern someone else bought is stealing from the pattern designer, if you see an example of a quilt that you like, and you don’t need the pattern to reproduce it because you can figure out the math on your own, you should still credit the pattern designer when you share about your quilt on your blog or enter it in a show.
- And if something is free to you, it doesn’t mean it is free for you to share. Online sources, in particular, provide freebies to draw you to their site. If your friend or your blog reader wants to use the free pattern you used, give them a link to the site where you got it.
- Don’t pass off someone else’s work as your own. Taking credit for something someone else did, even by omission, is wrong.
- If someone else quilts for you, and you label your quilts, include the quilter’s name on the label, too. It shows respect for the quilter’s expertise.
Laws are different in different countries, so we can’t give you specific laws to go by. (Always consult legal experts in your own country if you have concerns about this!) Instead, we’d like you to consider what is fair to the originator of creative work, whether it is words, photos or drawings, quilts, patterns, or tutorials. They have put time and effort and expertise into their creation. Regardless of their intention to make money off of it or not, they deserve acknowledgement and respect for their work.
Here are a few links if you want more information and perspectives on this difficult issue.
How Copyright Affects the Quilter by Kathleen Bissett. Discusses Canadian law but also general principles.
Can You Copyright A Sewing Pattern? by Abby Glassenberg at While She Naps. Primarily discusses US law.
A Word About Ethics: Photographing Quilt Shows and Judging by Anna Hergert at Anna Hergert, Art & Design. On taking photos at quilt shows.
Why Stealing Patterns is Like Killing the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg by Sam Hunter at Hunter’s Design Studio. In particular about using patterns you haven’t paid for, but also the broader topic.
Giving Credit and Avoiding Copyright Violations by Melanie McNeil at Catbird Quilt Studio. A general discussion on playing fair, with links to other sources.
Did you Plagiarize that Quilt? by Joanne Cleaver at Chicago Tribune. A story of taking a quilt design you have found on Pinterest and making your own instructions. Is this wrong?