Inspiration, derivation and chance

The Modern Quilt Guild stirred up controversy recently in a blog post on ‘Understanding Copyright, Derivatives and Design Credit in Quilting’. Now retracted thanks to considerable criticism from its members, the post outlined the MQG’s stance on derivative quilt designs. Unfortunately the post conflated what the MQC would tolerate (at QuiltCon) with what’s allowed under US copyright law. And of course, laws are different around the world; what works in the USA may not work elsewhere, and vice versa.

US copyright law is intentionally imprecise, which means that ‘derivation’ and ‘inspiration’ are often in the eye of the beholder (at least until the courts are involved). There’s an inherent subjectivity involved in determining the difference. How can we tell whether someone has been inspired by another design or designer or has created a derivative of the work? Can we develop guidelines (as the MQG has tried) or must each case be decided on its own merits (as in US law)?

Recently I completed a quilt top based on a block design that I created as part of Blossom Heart Quilts’ My DIY Block Design Challenge. Week 2 of the challenge was all about sketching: using the lessons from Alyce’s ebook to design a quilt block. I started playing around with Excel (yes, Excel) and came up with this design, among others.

Geometriquilt Excel design

(The same design could be made more easily used striped blocks set on point, but I was in the midst of trying to perfect my half-square triangle technique!)

Week 3 of the challenge was all about making. Using fabric that I’d recently added to my stash, I made a block based on the Excel design (which snagged me a prize, yay):

Geometriquilt Excel design block

Over time, I made another 3 blocks in coordinating fabrics, with the intention of arranging them into a larger square:

Geometriquilt Excel design layout

Excel’s fill and background colours don’t have quite the same range as Kona and Moda solids, but you get the idea: each colour would feature three times across the four blocks; each block would have a different background colour; and no colour would extend between adjacent blocks – the continuity across the blocks would come only from the design itself.

I set aside the 4 sewn blocks for a few months while I considered 2 possible arrangements, stressed about wrangling Essex linen alongside Kona solids, and further practiced my HST technique.

In the meantime, in one of my many meanders around Pinterest, I came across a remarkable artwork that immediately caught my eye. (I won’t post a picture for fear of breaching copyright.) An untitled work by German graphic designer Anton Stankowski, it’s a large square separated into quadrants crossed by bold diagonal lines. Unlike my design, the lines extend across vertical pairs of quadrants, and the horizontal quadrant pairs share the same background colour. But like my design, Stankowski uses only 4 colours (his are yellow, light blue, a purplish blue, and black; mine are mustardy yellow, light blue, dark blue and Essex Linen charcoal).

Before stumbling across this image, I had never seen this artwork or heard of Stankowski. But – to my mind, at least – the similarities between the two designs are striking. The fact that I only saw the image long after I’d finished my design reassures me that I didn’t inadvertently derive from Stankowski’s work, but for the same reason, I can’t claim that my design was inspired by it either.

Any similarity between my design and Stankowski’s is pure coincidence: ultimately there are only so many ways you can combine geometric shapes and popular colours. Considering the prevalence of simple shapes and standard block sizes in quilting, it’s no surprise that some of the same designs pop up again and again. Sometimes due to inspiration, sometimes derivation, and sometimes just chance.

I finally pieced together the 4 blocks without difficulty, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

Geometriquilt: Finished quilt top

Each block comprises an 8 x 8 grid of 3″ (finished) squares and HSTs; the quilt top measures 48.5″ x 48.5″. It’s back on the WIP pile for awhile as I think about how to quilt and bind it.




  1. pennylanequilts

    I agree and I think HSTs are a great example of a unit that can be used to create original work, but the inherent constraints may result in artwork that has similiar elements to other work based on those units. In my opinion, that doesn’t make your work derivative, and if you are designing independently, it’s not “inspired by”, either. In this example the process is what would determine whether it is inspired by, derivative of, or whether it is original.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Holly

    I thought it was an interesting post (the one on the MQG site) that I agreed with parts of and disagreed with parts of. I thought their definitions of what was “inspired by” or “derivative” were overly broad. Certainly so for copyright. Though they’re within their rights to accept or reject whatever they like in their own shows.

    The subject has come up repeated on the Facebook group for quilt pattern designers as well. There have been a number of questions regarding what you do when you’ve created a pattern on your own, and then discover another existing pattern that is similar – when you had not found it before creating your own.

    Add to that the fact that most of us (whether independent quilt pattern designers or quilters) cannot afford to either prosecute or defend a legal action, and sometimes there is a lot of over-reaction.

    What I’d really love to see some day is a copyright attorney writing an article for a quilting publication, knowing that things are imprecise but that such a person would have a better idea of what is permissible and what is not. In fact, I recently was given a link by Bonnie Christine for a webinar on copyright for crafters with an actual copyright lawyer. Unfortunately, it was nearly $1000, which was a little steep for me, right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • geometriquilt

      I love your own post on this topic, Holly! And I agree, it would be fantastic if an actual copyright lawyer weighed into these discussions and told us what’s allowed and what isn’t. I never know if the general uncertainty is because of a lack of information or because US law is so vague that there’s no way of definitively stating one way or the other without taking it to court (!).


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