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Copyright and Copy-Wrong–someone’s work looks SO like mine

Well, it finally happened.   Someone has made a couple quilts that look exactly as if the person saw my two quilts pictured here and copied them without permission.   And she is calling them “original art” and protected by “her copyright.”  Sigh.  I asked her nicely to give credit, she refused (letter below and boy is it mean–letter removed under threat of legal action by the author), so have written to Etsy to request removal of the two “copy” quilts.  Like I really wanted or needed this headache?  So I decided to write this post to share what has happened to me so that both new and experienced artists might learn from what has happened.  I would add that I totally *encourage* my students to use my patterns and make copies–that permission is given in the pattern.  But these are my original art, not patterened, and may NOT be copied nor derivative works made.  Read on!

I made this quilt, A Sense of Place::The Wall, in late 2006/early 2007.  It was published in 500 Art Quilts (ed. Karey Bresenhan, Lark Books), has been exhibited and is on my website and on my professional member gallery at

I made this quilt, A Sense of Place::The Wall, in late 2006/early 2007. It was published in 500 Art Quilts (ed. Karey Bresenhan, Lark Books), has been exhibited and is on my website and on my professional member gallery at

This is a companion piece, The Tree, which was in the FiberArt For a Cause cancer fundraiser (and sold on Gold Donor Day, thank you again K. McNeese!)

This is a companion piece, The Tree, which was in the FiberArt For a Cause cancer fundraiser (and sold on Gold Donor Day, thank you again K. McNeese!)

From the artist’s Etsy shop and website, it looks as though she is serious about starting a career in textile art (good for her), is working at it (ditto), but is still on the first part of the learning curve and hasn’t quite figured out what is “her.”  That’s fine–all of us have been at that point!  That’s how we learn.

QUICK UPDATE:  both Etsy and Pinterest reviewed the person’s postings, my work, and have removed the two items that were problems.  I have to give BIG kudos to Pinterest, which removed the pins of the two quilts in question in less than 3 hours!  and to Etsy.  Etsy responded so kindly — really impressed.  End of Update.  Moving on!

This kerfuffle started on Sunday evening when I received an email from someone I know by name and have met once, briefly, in person.  She wrote to tell me she had seen a piece that she thought looked just like mine and  the artist in question had them for sale on Etsy.  After checking out the Etsy shop and the artist’s website,   I then wrote to said artist and offered to let her continue to sell these works as long as she removed the “original art” and copyright notices since they appear to be clearly derivative of my work and credit me with the original design (and link to my website).   I’ll post my letter to her in at the end of this post, then her reply to me below that, but I will NOT publish her name, Etsy shop or website here. I SO wish I could share a link to her Etsy and Website because you’d see clearly why I feel the works, while not identical, are so clearly derivative (and yes, I have screen shots of her Etsy and web pages on my computer in case she decides to get litigious).  Once you read her letter, you’ll understand why–talk about vicious.  Sheesh.  Anyway, I feel fine publishing the content of the email because it was sent to me, and is therefore for me to do with as I see fit despite her request that I not go public with it (why?  wonder if she realizes how bad it makes her look?).  Unfortunately, she declined my  offer that could have solved this whole mess. I don’t know how I could have been any more gracious or helpful while still defending my own rights politely but firmly.

The artist, in her reply to my inquiry to her (through her website), was very angry, spoke about synchronicity (when two people in different places do the same sort of thing at the same time) and more.  I agree that synchronicity happens, but in this case the two pieces I found are so similar to mine which were made years earlier than hers:  colors, composition, subject matter (trees in winter), down to a wall of colorful stones fused onto black, a wall that extends across from one side to the other, that it defies credulity that this could be synchronicity.  Are winter scenes of trees with bare branches in snow common?  Sure!   Am I the only one who plays with a colorful palette?  Of course not!   But all of those things, down to the stone wall constructed in an identical manner?  Nope.  I’m not buying that one.  It is entirely possible she saw my quilt in the 500 Art Quilts book and was not aware that it was in her mind when she made her pieces.  But to say the similarity is synchronicity strains credulity beyond the breaking point.

There is a ton of stuff on the internet about copyright law in general and US copyright law specifically.  And I am NOT a lawyer.   But I do know that I and anyone I know who has seen her works and mine have immediately seen that her works **appear to be** a blatant copy.   I’m OK with people copying provided they do so with permission (she did not ask or have that), such as my students and people who purchase my patterns, and they respect the original artist and her legal rights.  In fact, I asked a few folks I know (some who know my work well, one who doesn’t) to make sure they see her Etsy listing to corroborate my version of events and tell me that they feel the works are copies–not identical but clearly copies. The artist –in her letter to me below (NOTE:  letter removed due to thread of legal action by the author)– even said perhaps I copied her and noted  that she made her pieces “a few years ago.”  Mine were made in late 2006, years before “a few years ago,” and the copyright statement on her Etsy listing says copyright 2013-2015.  Clearly I could not have copied what she made years later.  Whether she copied intentionally or unwittingly is not the point; she simply refused to acknowledge that her works are derivative.

Tuesday I wrote to Etsy to ask them to remove the two items in question since clearly the person who made them has furiously rejected my offer (see below) and won’t make things right on her own.  I don’t know what will come of it, but I am pleased to say that within two hours of hitting “send” on my email to the Etsy legal department I had an initial response.  I’ll post later with whatever transpires.


LESSON:  Go through the hassle of learning technology.  Just this past few weeks, in an online Photography class with Ricky Tims, I’ve learned how to embed my copyright information in photos, so henceforward all photos I post will have the copyright in the digital metadata.

LESSON:  Nothing will keep people from copying, or help those who don’t wish to listen or understand that what they have done is wrong.

LESSON:  You just gotta keep making your art and move on.  But you DO need to speak up, loudly, and defend your work and your rights.  So that’s what I’m doing.

LESSON:  For those of you new to art and art quilting, learn.  Learn all that you can.  Copy if you need to do so to learn, but be respectful.  And learn about copyright.  There are links below in my letter to the artist that take you to the source (for those of us in the US):  the US Copyright Office.

LESSON:  Document everything.  The fact that I blogged about these quilts in 2007 helps.  The fact that the metadata (digital encoding) on my photo files shows they were taken in late January 2007 helps.  I keep all my working drawings, patternings and notes in a manila envelope for each quilt, dated and tucked into a file cabinet.  Glad I do!  These two quilts were more spontaneous, but I do have the blog and photo info.

LESSON:  If something happens and one is as upset as this person clearly is in her letter below, perhaps one should stop and wonder WHY.  Perhaps she deep down realizes that the similarity is more than accidental and is upset that she has been caught out and called on it?  Who knows?

LESSON:  There are good people out there who alerted me to this.  We take care of each other.

So if you’re up for reading even more of this stuff,   my letter is below, followed by her response.  I leave you to draw your own conclusions.   Her words speak very loudly, but they may not be saying what she hopes.  They do say a lot about her.  It’s a shame, because she is clearly working hard and diligently at something she loves.  I hope she will learn from her mistake, and also learn that this is a small community and word gets around.  Again, I will NOT share her name.

My letter to her and her reply (with identifying information removed) are quoted below in their entirety.

On Mon, Mar 2, 2015 at 8:57 AM, Sarah Ann Smith <my email removed to nix more spam> wrote:
From: Sarah Ann Smith <my email removed to nix more spam>

Subject: HerWEBSITE Contact Form

Message Body:
Hi NAME!  Welcome to the world of art quilting!   I stumbled across your Etsy listing of a couple quilts, the XXX-NAME-XXX series, that look exactly like copies of my A Sense of Place: The Wall and A Sense of Place:  The Tree works.   Hmmm…  not good!  Especially since you are claiming copyright to these as original works when they are clearly derivative of my copyrighted original works.

I’m not about to be a big bad meanie.  I understand that you are somewhat new to art quilts and perhaps don’t understand copyright, copyright law, and some of the nuances because, frankly, it is somewhat complicated.  I’ll add a few hotlinks to US government sites that explain it at the end of this message.

Someone who saw your work immediately recognized the pieces as a take-off of my work, so it is clear that you were inspired by my work.  THANK YOU for liking it so much you wanted to copy these pieces.  We all learn by copying those who came before us.  However, to be blunt, it is not right for you to state that your SERIES NAME pieces are original artworks and subject to your copyright.  In fact, that is illegal (check those links at the end of this message).  In asserting such a claim you are in fact infringing on my copyright on my original artwork, created in 2004.

Because you are just starting out and probably do not understand fully how copyright works (for example, changing something 10 percent is a fallacy, copyright is still copyright), I am willing to let you display these works on your website and sell the existing works if, and only if in any place where they are published (including your website and Etsy shop), you remove the statement that they are original and copyrighted by you , and add a statement that they are “based on original artwork by Sarah Ann Smith at” and that I have “given NAME  permission to sell these three works only.”  Further, you may not make any further works based on my artwork.   I know each piece takes a lot of time, and respect your right to earn a living.  But I also need to protect my own ability to make a living from my art.

Here are three hotlinks that may help you understand copyright:

This link  talks about Copyright Basics and is quite helpful.  It says in part   “Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusiveright to do and to authorize others to do the following:
• reproduce the work in copies or  phonorecords
• prepare derivative works based  upon the works”

Your quilts fall into the “derivative works,” and are therefore not legal.  As I said, I’m willing to let you sell these, as long as you remove the statement that they are original to you and add a statement that they are based on my work, with a link to my website.  These statements need to appear any place on the web or in a gallery/craft show/shop, wherever, that you display or sell your NAME OF SERIES pieces.

Your work is lovely, you clearly love color and fabric as much as I do.   I’d like to encourage you to keep learning and listen to your own muse.  No one can make YOUR art as well as YOU do.   Copying is a good way to learn, but making your own original art is even better.

I’ll check your website to make sure you have complied.   Thank you for attending to this promptly!  We’ve all got better stuff to do –like make art– than deal with copyright violations!  Cheers, Sarah Ann Smith.
This e-mail was sent from Artist’s WEBSITE

And here is her astonishingly virulent reply to me, in its entirety, but I have removed names ( it’ll be obvious where):


LETTER REMOVED, 3:37 pm March 13, 2015 under thread of legal action by the author.


And back to me:

Enough said!  I find it curious that she refused to even go look at my works, since she would have seen the similarity instantly.  Maybe she didn’t want to know the truth???  At coffee with my BFF yesterday, I showed her the other person’s pieces on my phone, and (because they were little on the phone screen) my BFF at first thought they were mine!   How clear is that?   Anyway, let’s hope Etsy does the right thing.  I am sure the artist will not remove  one that is on her website, but frankly that one is simple a generic winter scene and doesn’t have the stone wall, so it doesn’t bother me.  It’s the two on Etsy that are clearly deriative.  Now, on to more fun things to do with my life!


16 Responses to “Copyright and Copy-Wrong–someone’s work looks SO like mine”

  1. Debbie St.Germain Says:

    Well, I looked at hers and compared to yours, I would say that she is naive, has taken from several artists ideas and turned those ideas into a simpler piece. The class she attended has teachers that do have similar work and I know I have seen a piece with trees and a bird, but different color tones. If she is getting into the quilting art world, she has had to have seen your works and others and I am sure the classes have displayed works.

    To me it is the stone wall, that is a dead giveaway. That is a new england feature;)

    Blatent copying is when someone buys one of your patterns, takes an element from that pattern, changes one thing on it and sells it as their own pattern, that has been my experience. I do folk art and some reproductions so similar items are bound to show up, I usually look before I make something new to see if there is anything like it. I also have dates on my patterns and photos of finished items, so that is one way to know, who was first.

    It is a shame and it will continue to happen. I can’t say how many times I have stumbled on sites that are listing patterns by others as freebies on their sites or photo sites saying they are inspiration. If you use someones art for inspiration, you are copying, duh.


  2. Terry Says:

    I am speechless. Regarding her letter “me thinks thou doth protest too much.”

  3. Veronica Von Zwehl Says:

    So, I searched on “Tree Quilt” on Etsy and I found a series of quilts that certainly looked like (inferior) versions of yours. I was just curious to see if I could find the quilter you were referring to. Found it. Sure looks like a copy to me! It is so annoying when someone gets caught copying and then refuses to acknowledge that they have done so.

  4. Jeanne Marklin Says:

    It sounds like you are at an impasse at this point. Both of you are in different corners and a reasonable conversation is difficult to have when you are in this position. It seems possible that she didn’t knowingly copy your piece and is upset that she has been thus disparaged on the SAQA list and now here. That is understandable. She may have seen your piece years ago when it was first made and the concept tucked into her subconscious only to come out 8 years later.
    How about taking the discussion off line and trying to talk to each other?

  5. Sarah Ann Smith Says:

    Jeanne: I tried that, and you can see her tone. I would have been happy to have worked with her, but she was unwilling. I totally get that she might have seen the quilt in 500 Art Quilts or elsewhere and it was not intentional (tho the similarity is so great I can’t help but think that is not the case), but her refusal to even look to see that her work is indeed derivative rankles. Anyway, I didn’t put the whole thing on SAQA deliberately–but many folks asked for a follow-up, so I did, but didn’t want it all washed out on the list!

  6. Elizabeth Mesec Says:

    Very similar to what happened to an Australianart quilter last year. When her name wa revealed she got lots of mail and had to take it down. She advertised it as a block of the month.

  7. Kristin Freeman Says:

    A clue to how this textile artist operates is that her work is sold from a LLC….limited liability corporation – rather unusual in the world of quilt artists, and in the SAQA membership roster her last name is listed as her business name. Nowhere does she use her last name. Unless you really want to get into a tangle with her, I would chalk it up to experience and move on…the energy it takes to confront someone with the fact that your work was finished and published many years before her work could be as others have suggested, a deep held memory, or a “knock off” and in either instance, dealing with a LLC means some serious legal battles ahead.
    May your journey find the high road in this messy situation…and your work continue to flow with imagination and creativity.

  8. Valli Schiller Says:

    I think her refusal to look at your works is simply to establish plausible deniability.

  9. Kate Oszko Says:

    Hi Sarah….thanks for sharing, and sorry that this has happened. I think Kristin is on the money, and I had those thoughts when reading the other artist’s letter. It’s hugely confrontational and I feel is setting the scene for a legal battle. On a different note, it was such a pleasure to see your work again, especially the glowing stones.

  10. Maggie Magee Says:

    Submit your copyrighted design to the offending quilter’s copyright application at the US Patent and Trademark Office. If your design predates hers, she should not have the ability to obtain her copyright. Then after her application is denied, you can send a cease and desist letter (if you really want to play hard ball). It is a shame she cannot accept credit where credit is due, particularly when that is the custom.

  11. Brenda Says:

    While this is a tricky subject, and I won’t comment on that, you do make reference to her reply as being “mean and vicious”. I certainly didn’t read it like that. Towards the end she is angry and upset, as you are, but her letter is extremely eloquent and I did not find it nasty as you infer. If I were to receive your initial letter in its form I would have been less polite than she. I think your approach to the situation is flawed and could have been handled much better, more diplomatically. …and cauterising her on social media before she has even replied is unprofessional. I wish you both the best in your resolutions and your future creative endeavours.

  12. Cathy Jeffers Says:

    May I have your permission to discuss this on my blog artquiltsightings?

    Thank you.


  13. Audra Rasnake Says:

    Hi Sarah,

    So sorry you’re going through this. Funny that in her letter back to you, she was piling up a list of HER rights. I tried reading some of the above posts and didn’t see my idea so I’ll throw it out to you. Fabrics come and go…if you can prove that the fabrics she used were manufactured AFTER the so-called “earlier than yours” date, you might prove her wrong. A lot of us quilters remember fabrics from years gone by and no longer available. Put your quilting sisters to work investigating this!

  14. Ellen G Says:

    I have a very different point of view than others. I haven’t read anything that indicates there is a proven determination made that your work was copied. An assumption was made that your work was copied. Nothing in my mind is a “dead giveaway.” It’s not difficult to find inspiration, color choices and the like between artists. It’s happened to me with a dear friend. We both produced a very similar piece. It happens. But to outright accuse someone of copying your work without proof is premature and downright mean. What I dislike the most, is that you and/or your friends have taken this matter to the masses. It’s something that should have been worked out privately. One try to work it out isn’t enough. It seems like there are a lot of feelings and emotions flying around over this matter. The law says that we are innocent until proven guilty.

  15. Beatrice Schnair Says:

    Anyone with basic internet search skills could, with a bit of persistence, glean the identity of your target. First paragraph of your email: accusatory, assumes facts not in evidence. Second paragraph: condescending and pedantic. Second to last paragraph: insulting, scolding,shrewish. Last paragraph: threatening. No wonder she responded as she did. If you are going to position yourself as a teacher and a leader, it may be suitable to be less petty, and avoid making a public spectacle of your grievances with a newcomer to the scene. How immature to gang up with your fans who do not know your target, and certainly cannot ascertain her motives. That is cyber bullying. Shame on you. As for copying your work, bare winter trees, stone walls and snow are hardly unique to your vista. Indeed, such inspiration might be found in many places. Let’s not forget that George Harrison was accused of stealing the melody of He’s So Fine, when he composed My Sweet Lord. George Harrison did not need to steal melodies. Similarities occur. The odds favor it. Please consider removing this post. Why make your private feuds public?

  16. Sarah Ann Smith Says:

    Beatrice: thank you for joining the discussion. I agree with you that bare winter trees, stone walls and snow are not unique. The treatment, however, is. Because the artist in question was unwilling to work cooperatively, I felt I had no viable option other than going public. I believe copying without permission or credit in wrong and, in this instance, violated my copyright. I would have much preferred to work this out in private, but her response prevented that. And I wouldn’t call it a feud, but standing up for my rights and educating others.

    I did not ask anyone to gang up on her, and in fact described her as a beginner doing a lot of things right. And she is clearly not naive: she has good skills in setting up her website and presenting herself in various social media. It doesn’t really matter whether the copying was intentional or subliminal, it is still copying. Once pointed out that it was a copy, even if inadvertent, she would have been wise if she had recognized that and chosen to either acknowledge the source or remove the items. Unfortunately, she did not.

    Moving on.