Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Labor of Creativity: Women's Work, Quilting, and the Uncommodified Life

Thank you so much for the outpouring of support that Kimberly Shaw has received about her copyright violation issue. She has responded with heartfelt thanks on her blog. She also asks if anyone (fabric designers in particular) can help with the answer to two questions:

I am dumbfounded about how artists whose work is textile related continue to be "dissed" with little thought about any consequences. This is a much larger issue than I was aware of before Kimberly's problem came to light. I knew about Paula Nadelstern's and Faith Ringgold's copyright infringement lawsuits, but now have discovered that there have been others...and there is no telling how many violations will remain hidden and/or unchallenged.

In musing about this, I think gender has a lot has to do with it - after all, we for the most part are "only women" and so don't really count, for whom respect for our work doesn't have to be paid, or who are highly unlikely to have the financial resources or determination to pursue justice. Another factor unfortunately seems to be that often we don't have the kind of respect we should for our own work and feel that its so non-consequential that copyright really doesn't apply.

Debora J Halbart is an assistant professor at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. In 2009 she published a seminal article on this in Volume 3 of the Journal of Transformative Works and Culture (originally presented as a paper at the American University Washington College of Law conference on Gender and Intellectual Property in 2008). Following is the abstract:
"Quilting is an area of creative work rich in tradition that demonstrates how ideas and inspiration flow between quilters as they share with each other, move to new parts of the country, and develop their own designs. While commercial patterns have been copyrighted, quilting has generally existed under the radar of copyright law, primarily because quilts are most often exchanged within a gift economy. However, as quilting becomes big business and patterns and pattern books are more centrally located in quilting culture, issues associated with copyright protection emerge. This article investigates the relationship between copyright law, innovation, and sharing as it is understood by quilters who responded to an online questionnaire. Survey participants feel that quilting is a creative activity in which copyright plays a very small role, except when it restricts the actions of quilters. The survey suggests that respondents see quilting as creating a connection between themselves, their families, and their communities. Their creative work, in other words, is a gift they want to share, not a product they want to sell."

In this article, Debora details the history of quilting in the US and cites the details of case after case of quilt artist copyright infringement, including that of Kathleen Bissett's 2004 lawsuit against the Central Canada Quilt Exhibition, the 2006 suit of Paula Nadelstern against the Hilton Hotel, Faith Ringgold's suit against the BET television network, and the 2001 case of Judi Boisson for the illegal reproduction and sale of her quilt designs.

This article is fascinating, detailed, and very readable (no unintelligible jargon). Please read it at your leisure. You will be truly enlightened and very glad that you did.

Citations at the end of the article provide links to additional information and resources.


June said...

Gwen, this is a terrific article. Thanks for finding and referencing it.

I would love to see two other surveys done, one with the commercial quilters, as the author suggests, and the other with the quilters who see themselves as artists who use traditional quilting techniques, such as many of the QuiltArt List members and SAQA members. I suspect the findings would be very different.

She doesn't differentiate between what I think of as quilted art (aka studio art quilts or quilt art) and "quilts." That too is an interesting lack within the article that would be fascinating to have some follow-up on.

Thank you again for a very thought provoking reference. It was well worth reading thoroughly.

June Underwood

Gwen Magee (Gwendolyn) said...

June those are excellent points. After discovering the article, I contacted Debora because I thought she would be interested in Kimberly's situation (Kimberly did file a lawsuit earlier this year) and she has plans to expand on the article for her next book on copyright and creativity. I'll be sure to send her your comments.