Anna Hergert, Art & Design

In the Spotlight: Original – Derivative – Copied Work, Part 1

Reverse Applique sample

I wrote an article for the last issue of Canadian Quilter Magazine titled: Design: Deciphering the Myth Surrounding Original, Derivative & Copied Work.  It was presented from a judging and jury perspective, however it applies to all art forms. I have decided to publish the article here today, adding some personal insights and concerns. In other words I am putting my personal convictions “out there” for discussion:

Every time a quilt judge enters the “hallowed” chamber of judging and joins a team of scribes, helpers, and dedicated guild members she/he is faced with countless challenges. This essay focuses on design, a primary component in the judging process and specifically as it relates to originality.

Over the past several years copyright infringement issues constitute a part of the news almost daily. With tighter regulations in the US and in Canada, as well as increased awareness through public education, the art world has adopted strict observation of copyright. As quilters, traditional and innovative alike, we also must take responsibility, and differentiate between original, copied, and derivative work. This usually raises the question, what is original? What does it mean to copy? What is derivative?

Beginning with original, the World English Dictionary defines the word as follows:
— adj
1. of or relating to an origin or beginning
2. fresh and unusual; novel
3. able to think of or carry out new ideas or concepts
4. being that from which a copy, translation, etc, is made
— n
5. the first and genuine form of something, from which others are derived
6. a person or thing used as a model in art or literature
7. a person whose way of thinking is unusual or creative
8. the first form or occurrence of something
Ergo: An original work of art, a quilt, fiber art piece or painting must be created
independently (by one person or a group) based on a new idea, an original photo taken by the creator or sketches captured by the maker. It really is this simple! When submitting an entry for judging it is helpful to state that the work is original. These days the organizer usually provides a section on the entry form and entry label to add this vital information. For a quilt judge it is extremely important to have this information on hand as well. Valuable time is lost when helpers and scribes have to stop their assigned duties to locate the entry form to obtain additional information on originality.

Question: “What if I use a photo I found on-line or a friend took for me to use in my work? I am going to render it in fabric, which makes it an original.”

The short answer is: Using a photograph created by another person does NOT make your work original no matter if you painted the work, manipulated the fabric and fibres or recreated the work in wood.

Let us assume that you have contacted the photographer, obtained written permission and/or bought the one-time reproduction rights from the artist. You proceed by selecting all or certain elements from the image, possibly change the color scheme and move forward in fabric. It is important to realize that you are NOT creating an original work of art, you are creating a derivative of the original. As such you are obligated to credit the photographer with the inspiration for your work each time it is exhibited.

The official definition(s) of derivative provides concise information and aids in understanding this term:
1. Resulting from or employing derivation: a derivative word; a derivative process.
2. Copied or adapted from others: a highly derivative prose style.
3. resulting from derivation; derived
4. based on or making use of other sources; not original or primary
5. copied from others, esp. slavishly; plagiaristic

Enter nother scenario: A quilter buys a pattern and proceeds to create the quilt from this pattern. Changing the colors to any extent, whether it is 10 or 100 % will not render this quilt an original. Changing the border from the original pattern (from a book, the Internet or paper pattern) by “borrowing” an appliqué border from another published pattern, or drafting an original border to add to a paper pieced center will not make this quilt an original creation either.

With original and derivative defined I feel it necessary to elaborate on one more vital point, the work created in the class room. Technically, any work created in a workshop, no matter how brief the time spent with the teacher, cannot be considered an original. Most often the instructor has spent countless hours developing and refining a design idea before offering a workshop to share the concept. Just as hand-outs are copyrighted, teacher input is a sharing of intellect and should be respected as such.

However, here are the good news: Once the workshop participant returns to her own sewing space or studio and further develops the concept acquired in the classroom, this subsequent work is considered original. In addition, it is important to point out that embroidery and quilting stitches are not copyrighted. Simple and compound stitches of any combination have been executed by our ancestors through the ages and as such they are in the public domain! However, when it comes to machine embroidery designs that are digitized it is crucial to obtain written permission from the designer/developer prior to exhibiting.

To summarize, I want to stress the importance of acknowledgment. Anyone who
contributed to the quilt, artist, photographer, workshop instructor, etc. must be
acknowledged, whether the show is a judged one or not. Ensure you have written
permission from the pattern designer (whether it is a singular pattern or from a book) or from an artist of any medium whose work you are interpreting. Proof of written permission is also necessary when working from a photograph not taken by you. If the work was inspired by a painting by an artist who has passed away, make sure to check with his estate to avoid possible repercussions. Should your entry have been started in a workshop, the teacher’s name must be provided.

With the focus on original design I am including a ELEMENTS & PRINCIPLES OF DESIGN handout developed over several years of teaching. It is a dynamic document (many of my past students may recognize this updated version) which will provide simple guidelines to help you evaluate, plan and create art based on these basic principles.

In addition I encourage the reader to browse the Internet, check out books from the library and search through used bookstores for volumes on design. Second- hand textbooks from art school graduates are a wonderful resource when striving to better grasp the subject of design.


This concludes the original article. There is so much more on the subject I but feel that this post is getting a little long. I encourage you to weigh in with comments and questions in the comment section. Tuesday’s post will bring Part 2 of the subject introduced today. It will also provide a chance to answer any questions in depth.  Enjoy your Sunday!

This entry was published on March 17, 2013 at 7:11 am. It’s filed under Art, Design, In the News, Journaling, Networking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

28 thoughts on “In the Spotlight: Original – Derivative – Copied Work, Part 1

  1. Emelie Hunt on said:

    So, here is another question. I always have a doodle book in my purse. When I am sitting waiting, I bring it out, look around, find something that I like the shape of and start my doodling from there. One of the things I saw was a stained glass piece that was circles and lines. So I drew circles and lines. My doodle does not look at all like the stained glass piece. If I make something from that doodle, is this an original or not?


    • Hello Emelie,
      You may want to read part 2 of this theme from Tuesday and find the answer yourself.
      I clearly state that there is very little around us that is original – we are most often inspired by something already in existence. From what you describe, you were intrigued by a stained glass window, you doodled and created a sketch that does not resemble the original art. Are you creating the final work in glass? Are you translating it into a weaving? My view is that you were inspired by the glass work and you are manipulating your sketch into a design that is unique, original.
      If anyone disagrees – please weigh in with your opinion!


  2. John Cornell on said:

    Hi, just a comment: I think your remarks regarding embroidery/quilting based on a photograph are perhaps too strict: if you ASK someone to photograph something for you, and then base your design on the photo, I would regard that as an original design — after all, YOU had the idea in the first place! I would agree that if the photo was by someone else, professional or otherwise, without your request, it should be credited as “based on” or “inspired by” work by someone else.


    • Thanks for weighing in – the rules, as you call them, are no my rules, they are general copyright rules. If you ask someone to take a photo for you to use in your work, at one point does it cross the professional line? What if the fiber artists create her masterpiece based on the photo and sells it? Are you still the friend who stands back and does not ask for a portion of the income? A contract will ensure and support a professional relationship.
      For those of you reading this section, who have experience with this scenario – please comment!


  3. Kathleen Rispler on said:

    I havent read these maybe will answer questions




  4. Ebaron5 on said:

    This is helpful, as others have said. Thank you! My question is about workshops – is your take true only for workshops on a particular pattern, or does it cover workshops about technique as well? For example, I took a class a few years ago on a particular machine applique technique, and the teacher gave us some pointers on design, but the designs for the quilt were things I drew myself. What do I need to credit? And what kind of permission do I need to show the quilt I started in class?


    • Thank you for your questions. I am posting details dealing with your questions on Tuesday. Meanwhile, if you took the workshop to learn technique and you are using your own designs now you can call the work “original”. If you are working from someone’s pattern you obtain permission from the designer for exhibition purposes. Hope this helps – check back on Tuesday for more info!


  5. Great and informative article. It very much reminds me of the work Diane Clancy and I did a few years ago regarding the Orphan Act (when copywriting of artistic work came to light).
    If anyone is interested I will repost the article.
    A note to those on Etsy or other mediums, although I design my own jewelry – if I use a specific piece as a focal point, I always thank and acknowledge the artist who designed and made the piece. The same with my crochet and knitting, although most of us mainly use patterns – it is how we interpret it – adding different stitches, etc which make it unique to our Shop. If I use a specific handspun, hand-dyed yarn, or an Artyarn, I always acknowledge the artist and their Shop. Coincidentally I have (2) scarfs in my Shop which were handspun and dyed by Myfawny herself. As always I thank and acknowledged her for her beautiful work, and hope someday some she designs more of her beautiful colored yarns! MagdaleneJewels & MagdaleneKnits


  6. Bush Eastep on said:

    Hi, Anna,

    Thank you for this information. It really clears up a number of issues.

    One thing I’ve never been sure about is the question of a design developed from a motif found in the traditional art of another culture, ancient or modern. Can you still label a piece as original if it’s based on such a motif? Is it different if the motif in question appears frequently the art of the culture as opposed to one that that seems rare or unusual?


    • Hi Bush, Glad you found the post informative.
      Your question is timely and of interest to many, can you call a work original if it is based on another culture’s motifs and art?
      I was at a CARFAC symposium late last year where this was the primary topic. An elder shared her insights by encouraging dialogue. It is important to seek out an elder and ask for permission to use an indigenous motif. The elder will inevitably ask to search within you if such permission should be granted… Listening to her lecture I learned so much. I have done further research. Here is a link with helpful information:


    • As a photographer, I am the one who works with the camera settings, I choose the lens, I focus on the piece. If it is a landscape, 100 photographers can stand in the same place and take a photo … each one will vary from the others! The skill of the photographer is what makes a great photo. Credit should be given!


      • I’ve always felt that culture belongs to those who are born within it. It is not just art, it is a part of their past. West Coast native families ‘own’ their family crests – just as the Scots own their family tartan. I have always been fascinated by the west coast native images, dances and stories. I have painted landscapes with totems … they have been placed by the natives within a social context to be observed by others. I would not copy individual images/symbols. They should not be placed for sale by anyone other than those who are culturally connected to the symbol.


      • Well stated – Thank you, Vivian!


      • Thanks, Vivian – with today’s technology and the advanced digital cameras available to us we still need a certain amount of skill, but overall it is much easier to produce images that are noteworthy. The bottom line is, as you say: Credit must be given!


  7. Marilyn Clulow on said:

    If a design is taken from a piece of Fabric and you have no idea who designed the fabric and you use the motifs in your art work how then would this be described?
    Great article, well written and ver informative, thank you. Serafin


    • Can you find out where the fabric was printed? Sold? There are internet sites to locate hard to find fabrics – these are a great place to start, as is the local quilt store. Many of the quilt store owners are a wealth of information when it comes to fabric lines.
      If you have exhausted all sources, credit the piece of fabric and include a photography if it with the official entry form. Hope this helps!


  8. Anna: Excellent and well organized information! Having worked on juries and judged, we rely upon the honesty of the quilt maker to disclose all sources. We wouldn’t steal flowers from someone’s garden and we should not steal ideas from others. I would say that 99.9% of pattern designers and publishers are pleased to have their pattern displayed with credits to them. Most photographers/artists are interested to see that their work inspires someone and are curious to see their idea represented in another media. Give credit where credit is due!


    • Thank you, Vivian.
      It is all about the honesty of the artist – no doubt. And it is a wonderful world where everyone is 100 % honest 100 % of the time.
      As a general rule I believe that new artists or those that don’t have formal training are not always well informed about copyright laws and derivative work. I elaborate on this in my next post, which is presented from that angle.
      And I concur: Give credit where credit is due!


  9. This is an excellent article. Thank you. I will be pointing people towards it.


  10. Rena L.C.Churas Holma--From My Hands. on said:

    Anna; I know of a lady that gives workshops in hand embroidery–they are done to make ornaments, but in looking at the finished product, anyone can see the designs were taken from a Japanese Quilting book. Although, the medium is different the designs are exactly the same–executed in stitch rather than cloth. My question is, she has her copyright on each piece and am wondering if the copyright belongs to her or the author of the Japanese Quilt book. There is no mention of permission granted from the authors or publishers and nowhere does it say that it is a Copied or Derivative work. Also, if a piece is copied and sold from a magazine or book the stitcher needs to have permission from the publishers and the original designers. It all works if you know that you are using techniques from centuries past;i.e. Kantha Embroidery, Ukrainian Embroidery, Caselguidi,, Elizabethan Metal and Crewel work, Those particular embroidery techniques and designs open another can of worms when the time span is considered. Rena H.


    • Rena, without seeing the Japanese Quilting book and the work the instructor you know produces and teaches it is difficult to come up with a definitive answer. If the embroidery designs are identical to the images in the book copyright is in question, especially since no mention is made that permission was granted by the original author.
      The key to using historical embroidery stitches is education. Any work based on historical techniques produced by me I provide credit for in my statement. As a rule I rarely enter these works into juried and judged shows. Giving credit to historical techniques/stitches is not a requirement as they are part of the public domain.


  11. Alison on said:

    Thank you Anna!! Your blogs are always so timely. It is a very complex subject, and thank you for clarifying this topic so well. I am striving so hard to be original in my designs and this article reminds me to keep taking my own pictures and sketching my own ideas down, and pushing my own viewpoints. I’m so used to looking through magazines and have to check with myself quite often, “where did that good idea come from? ” “is it truly yours?” Thank you again for sharing your wisdom and expertise! Can’t wait for your next blog… with great admiration, Alison


    • Hi Alison, good to see your comment here. As a graphic designer you are aware of many of these issues, I am sure! With this said – the sooner you create original work for exhibition to more confidently you can present the work in exhibitions.
      On the other hand, we are inundated with visual information and inspiration – so much is going to influence us as artists. As long as we are aware of this and strive for personal innovation and originality in our approach we make educated decisions.


  12. Thank you Anna for being so distinct!!! I was debating about submitting some pieces for a local art show, I read your article in the CQA and now I am not!! as the pieces are from workshops. I really didn’t think too much about that and I’m glad that you put me straight.
    I am pulling out that article and filing it so I can keep it as a resource. Thanks again.


    • You are welcome. Do check with the instructors before you exhibit the work created in class – also make sure to check with the organizers about the rules for the show. Many shows accept work produced in workshops as long as credit is given to the teacher, pattern, or photograph.


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