Copyright Your Quilt

All articles are copyrighted. In most cases, articles on protecting quilts may be reprinted in your quilt guild newsletter free of charge, but please request permission first.

No, not every quilt needs to be copyrighted, but if you’ve created a truly original piece, it may be something you would like to consider. These are some of the basics of copyright law.

A copyright protects the quilt you have designed

Your original work is automatically copyrighted when you actually create or design your quilt. An idea that is still in your mind can not be copyrighted because it is not recorded in any concrete fashion. (US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 2 & 3,

Notify the viewer

You should mark your creations with the © symbol (or you can write out the word "Copyright"), the year, and your name. At one time, it was required that the copyright symbol be used, but now, current works (created after 1989) are still considered copyrighted even if the symbol is not used. However, including the symbol clearly notifies the public that you own the copyright. Also, you do not have to register your creations for them to be copyrighted, but it will give you full federal protection as well as certain additional legal rights. (US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 4, )

What can be copyrighted?

You can only copyright "original works of authorship" that are in a tangible form. Your work must be unique and distinctive in order to copyright it. (US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 2, )

For instance, you could not copyright an Ohio Star block since it is very common and it is in the public domain. However, if you draft the Ohio Star block pattern pieces and write a description of how to construct the block, you could copyright that. In this case, it is not the block itself that is copyrighted but it is the instructions and illustrations.

For your work to be copyrighted, it must be original and created independently

According to the US Supreme Court, "To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be original to the author. Original, as the term is used in copyright, means only that the work was independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works)." (Digital Law Online, An Overview of Copyright, II.A.3,

Is it original?

I like to ask myself, did I come up with this on my own? Does it look like anyone else’s work or style? Did I use anyone else’s photograph or drawing in my design? When an informed viewer looks at my work, will it remind them of someone else’s style or will it look uniquely mine?

The US Supreme Court has stated, "Originality remains the sine qua non [an indispensable condition] of copyright; accordingly, copyright protection may extend only to those components of a work that are original to the author." (Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991))

This means that just because you successfully copyrighted a particular image, a blue daisy for instance, it doesn’t mean that you can now prevent others from using their own blue daisy images, as long as they are using their own photographs or artwork, and not yours. The key is, are they each "significantly original" and were they created independently?

What can not be copyrighted?

You cannot copyright a thought or idea. You cannot copyright a technique or method. You cannot copyright a title, name, short phrases, or familiar symbols. (US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 3, )

You may want to register for a copyright if you intend to publicly show your quilt on a regular basis

Registering your original quilt makes a public claim to the design. If your design is copied by someone, you still have certain rights even without officially registering it but you will have to register for a copyright before you can file an infringement suit. (US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 7, )

With a copyright you have rights protected by law

A copyright gives you five specific rights.

  1. The right to reproduce the copyrighted work.
  2. The right to prepare works derived from the copyrighted work.
  3. The right to distribute copies, whether sold or given for free.
  4. The right to perform the copyrighted work.
  5. The right to display the copyrighted work publicly.

(US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 1, )

How do you register for a copyright?

You can copyright your work online for $35 or by mail for $45.

  1. Go to the US Copyright website and download Circular 40, "Copyright Registration for Works of Visual Arts." It can be found at
  2. Circular 4 on the US Copyright website explains the fees and gives also some registration information. It can be found at

(US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 7, )

How long does it take for a copyright to be registered?

The copyright registration goes into effect the day the Copyright Office receives all required items. You can send your application by registered mail so you will have proof of the date it is received. It will take a while for the application to be processed. Once the application is accepted, you will receive a certificate of registration. You will receive a letter or a call if they need more information or if the application is rejected. (US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 7 & 10, )

How long is a copyright good for?

Any copyright granted after January 1, 1978 generally lasts the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. For anonymous works and other certain instances, the copyright lasts the shorter of 95 years after first publication or 120 years after creation. (US Copyright Office FAQ, How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?,

For works created before 1978 it gets a bit more complicated. US Copyright Office’s Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright describes each possibility scenario in detail. Generally speaking, however, works were copyrighted for 28 years (beginning not when the piece was first created, but when the work was first published). In the 28th year, copyright owner could choose to renew that copyright and extend it an additional 47 years (for a total of 75 years). A law in 1998 granted an automatic additional 20 years, for a total of 95 years. There are several exceptions, so be sure to refer to Publication 15a for a complete description. (US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 5 & 6, and US Copyright Office Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, page 2, )

The "poor man’s copyright" myth

A "poor man’s copyright" is the belief that you can mail yourself a copy of your work in a sealed envelope and the date of the cancellation stamp will verify the date of creation. However, there is NO such provision in the copyright law, and it certainly should not be used as a substitute for true registration. If you think about it, you will understand why. It would be simple enough to mail yourself an unsealed envelope and then you could put a copy of your item in the envelope at any time after receiving it. (US Copyright Office FAQ, Copyright in General,

Transfer of copyright

A copyright is owned by the creator, not the owner of the physical object. Transfer of ownership of the object does not necessarily transfer the rights of copyright. The transfer of copyright is only valid if it is in writing and it is signed by the creator. When selling your own original copyrighted quilt, provide a written statement to the buyer clearly stating who will own the copyright of the image so there is no confusion. If you retain the copyright of the quilt, you still have the exclusive rights as listed above. (US Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, page 6, )

Where can you get more information about copyrights?

  • Visit the Copyright Office Website at
  • Or, you can speak to an information specialist at 202-707-3000 during normal business hours (Eastern Standard Time).
  • You can also listen to pre-recorded messages 24 hours a day.


I am not a lawyer. The copyright information presented is not to be construed as legal advice.

My desire is to present a clear, easy-to-understand summary of copyright issues that may be relevant to the average quilter. If you find that any of the above information is in error, I am very happy to correct it. Please email me with the correct information and the source of your information. Please note, the scope of this article does not allow me to cover every possible scenario. That’s what the copyright law is for.

If you need more specialized information, consult an attorney whose expertise is copyrights and intellectual property law.


Copyright Your Quilt — 2 Comments

  1. What value is a quilting magazine is you can not use the patterns or display the quilt once it is completed? We had an instructor tell us that we cannot use a pattern from a book/magazine, make a quilt and display it in a show. She also stated that a quilt could not be sold if the pattern was copyrighted. That would make buying a pattern pointless. Help me understand this, so I can do a presentation to our guild. Thank you Lois

  2. I agree that this is a confusing issue and you will hear many interpretations of copyright law — some correct and some incorrect.

    Your friend is likely referring to the five basic rights a copyright holder has:
    1. The right to reproduce the copyrighted work.
    2. The right to prepare works derived from the copyrighted work.
    3. The right to distribute copies, whether sold or given for free.
    4. The right to perform the copyrighted work.
    5. The right to display the copyrighted work publicly.

    How these rights are applied to patterns can be confusing. I find the simplest approach is to just contact the author directly, tell him/her what you would like to do, and ask permission. I find that in most instances, the author is more than willing to grant permission.