A Disappointing Copycat and a Plea for Change

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

DISCLAIMER: These are my thoughts and opinions only, and do not reflect those of anyone else.

In the past year, I've witnessed a few bouts of online drama regarding sewing patterns. A pattern is released and the whispers start. People remark that it looks awful similar to an existing pattern. Some accuse the designers of copying one another for personal profit, and then it gets messy.

I'm not going to rehash some of the more widely read blog posts on the matter, but among pattern designers, it is fairly common knowledge that designs themselves cannot be copyrighted. It's the written instructions that are protected. (While She Naps has a good post on this).

The issue hit pretty close to home for me this week while I browsed patterns on Checker. I stumbled upon a quilt pattern by Zen Chic called Octo, which I immediately recognized. Why did I recognize it? Because my dear friend, Patty Sloniger designed it, not Zen Chic (Brigitte Heitland).

Patty designed her paper pieced Fractal Block for a swap back in July 2014 back when we still worked in the same office. It was an immediate hit and she made the pattern available for sale on Craftsy for $2.50. Since then, it's sold well and they pop up in my Instagram feed often. So you can imagine my surprise upon seeing the block being sold under Zen Chic's branding.

My surprise turned into confusion when I viewed the back cover of the pattern. The description reads "The pattern is inspired by a block once seen from Patty Sloninger." For starters, Patty's name was misspelled, leading me to believe she did not approve the use of her pattern. Plus, the wording felt dismissive of her role in the quilt design. "a block once seen" seems to suggest a fleeting moment of inspiration (without further research) rather than a collaboration.

Zen Chic's Octo quilt pattern vs Patty's original Fractal Block

I immediately sent an email and text message to Patty alerting her to the issue. Her response confirmed my suspicions. Brigitte never contacted Patty asking for permission to use the block and was now selling Patty's original design without consent. 

I was so upset about what was unfolding. I love this industry and all the creativity it entails. I love the indie maker movement and how designers are able to make a name and business for themselves. And when I see people trying to make a buck off the hard work of these individuals without compensation, it puts me in a tizzy. To see it being done by another indie designer hurts even more. So much for solidarity.

I sent Brigitte a Facebook message voicing my disapproval:
"I saw your Octo Quilt pattern online and immediately recognized it as FPP pattern designed by my friend, Patty Sloniger. She designed this pattern and sells it as a PDF on Craftsy for $2.50. I noticed you "credited" her on the back of the pattern (although you misspelled her name). I brought this to her attention, and she told me she never gave permission for her pattern to be sold or reproduced by anyone else. I believe she will be sending you an email today.

I'm not sure why you decided to copy her pattern and sell it without permission, even with the intent to credit her. The fact is that she designed this pattern and actively sells it, and it would appear you are attempting to pass off her design as your own for profit. I find this really disappointing and I will be letting my friends know about this. I will no longer purchase your patterns or products and I will encourage my friends to do the same."
I received this response from Zen Chic:
"Hello Felice, thank you for the open words. You are right with what you think. I discussed that issue before with my marketing director of Moda. What she brought to my mind was: There is no copyright on inspiration. Who could blame anyone for stealing a windmill block, which is used so often in quilts? Who was the original creator of a double wedding ring block, which we all use? Chevron - popular, everyone uses it, who is the origin to pay credit for? The fractal block of Patty is significant and not often used, so I gave her credits for the one who came up with the idea.
However - I didn't steal her pattern, but rather developed my own. I just had a look on her block on the online picture, a picture available for anybody. Then I draw my block with EQ7 and figured out how to put it together. I don't have a pattern from Patty, nor have I figured out how she did it. And I have not at all copied any written content from her.

But - I don't sell a single block, I sell a quilt pattern: I sell the materials list for a complete quilt, and explain step by step how to put a quilt together, including how to make a quilt sandwich, a binding and so on - using a block inspired by Patty. Every clever person who can do a quilt by herself, can check out the credited source and buy the FPP from Patty for much less than my complete quilt pattern would cost.
Believe me, I considered it for a while how this could hurt Pattys income streams. And I decided it won't - the one who needs just the FPP pattern for a template can easily download the cheaper version of Patty and put her own quilt together. But the one who needs detailed materials lists, how much fabric to buy, border sizes, and so on, needs definitely a complete quilt pattern, which I created.
I really respect your loyalty for a friend and I would do the same for my friends. So I don't expect you to understand my point of view.
Kind regards, Brigitte"

There are many posts online about copyright law and quilts floating around the internet, but I'm not interested in talking about was is legal and illegal for a simple reason: I believe that what is legal is a poor barometer of what is ethical. It's also an argument about what should be rather than what is. A designer's work can be blatantly stolen and reproduced for a profit, but taking the issue through the legal system in the US is often far more costly than it is worth. For example, a designer that pursues a case of copyright infringement on a sewing pattern which normally earns them $5 profit. I'm not sure what the average distribution for indie designers is, but let's just say Indie Designer B copies Indie Designer A's design to a T (but rewrites the instructions), and sells 1000 copies, essentially cheating Designer A out of $5000 profit. Legal fees are quickly going to exceed $5000, so Designer A is unlikely to pursue the issue in court. We all know that Designer B is wrong and Designer A should receive restitution. But that's not what happens, and that's why I'm not going to bother with the legal implications in this post.

To me, the writing is on the wall. Brigitte was aware of Patty's design, copied it, and made a weak attempt to credit her, but not compensate her. She defends her position my saying she drafted the pattern herself after seeing photos of Patty's block. For me, this doesn't cut it. Redrafting a pattern instead of buying it does not make it yours.

Brigitte compares Patty's Fractal Block to basic traditional blocks which have long been part of creative commons. She seems to think the fact that Patty's block is a wholly original design merits only a misspelled credit. She claims to have "developed [her] own" block that was inspired by Patty's, but look at them side by side. If the Fractal Block was the inspiration, where Brigitte's original contribution? Sewing the blocks together? Hardly an original idea. Patty's pattern even has digital mock ups of her design in a one-block quilt on her Craftsy listing.

At first I was perplexed why Zen Chic essentially called herself out on the design ripoff by "crediting" Patty, but I now feel it was an attempt to ward off accusations. If she "credits" Patty on her pattern, people who recognize it as Patty's Fractal Block may assume she gave consent for Brigitte to reproduce it. Had there been no credit at all, she would find herself in a sticky spot with anyone who recognized the design. By adding a credit, she places herself in a convenient gray area.

I have no stake in this incident, and what I've written here entails my total involvement in it. However, I think the larger issue needs to be discussed, which is why I am writing this post.

Designers, manufacturers, and publishers, please stop basing your actions on what is legally acceptable and start doing what is ethically acceptable. Our legal system makes this kind of behavior possible, but it does not make it a good business decision. Brigitte may generate a decent revenue sale from sales of this pattern, but I will never buy her fabric or patterns again. I have lost any respect I had for her. I hope others will feel the same way after reading this post, because this message is best sent with our dollars or lack thereof.

Our designs are not yours to cherry pick for profit. Making something a few inches bigger or making a tiny tweak doesn't make your design original. I redrafted the Pack N Go tote for myself, but I never even considered selling the pattern. I never even considered posting it for free. Kimberly Walus designed the bag, and she deserves the financial benefit of her work. I have no right to gain profit from it or sell a knock-off of her bag, even with the revisions I made.

I made significant changes to Noodlehead's Super Tote when I made it into a convertible backpack. I wrote the post in such a way that readers will still need to purchase the Super Tote pattern. I could have sold my own "expansion pack" of sorts, but I felt it would be poor taste to sell a pattern that capitalizes on the hard work of another designer. I wanted to share the design with others, and the only obvious solution was to give away my contributions for free. It generated blog traffic and that seemed fair.

Brigitte's desire to provide more resources for quilters has merit, but I believe should have taken an approach similar to my Super Tote backpack. Offer yardage requirements for the finished quilt, direct readers to Patty's listing for the block construction, and provide instructions on how to turn the finished blocks into a quilt top. And do this for free. If the intent was to help quilters, that's the obvious road. But the real goal was to make a profit without an original idea, and that's just plain crappy.

Make your pattern products original or don't sell them at all. It's not complicated. It's just honest business.

If you would like to support Patty, you can purchase her original Fractal Block on her Craftsy page for $2.50.


  1. I feel too often the focus is on what is legal vs. what is ethical, and you state it well here. Thank you for this post!

  2. It is a breath of fresh air to hear about the ethical thing to do! Thanks for such a well written defense of your friend and doing the right thing, u are not so scattered brained! :0)

  3. *drops mic*

    You are so correct. I feel the same way about the hour basket pattern that has been so popular, it is a watered-down version of Noodlehead's Divided Basket. Since the hour basket is free, I don't feel it is as serious an issue as the one above with Patty. But it still bothers me how much of a copy it is.

    I'll stand by you one this :)

  4. Great post! This situation should not have happened, and especially an experienced designer should have avoided it at all costs. Aren't they the talented ones that can think up their own ideas?! Also, they are often the ones shouting the loudest if something seems even slightly similar to their work. There are a lot of cases in the grey area of "inspired by", but this doesn't seem one of them. And you're right, legal should not be the argument, let's be ethical about what we create!

  5. Here here!! Well said. I won't be buying any zen chic products either and shame on Moda for letting her do it! I would actually consider them at fault here as well.

  6. I've seen this happen so often over my many years of quilting. One would wish that quilters would be above such things, but, alas, quilters are people, too. Sometimes the "borrowing" is intentional, sometimes not. It sucks that it has happened to Patti.

  7. Well stated and important info for we the consumers to know. Thank you.

  8. I like you a lot. And way to call out Zen Chic and Moda...that's pathetic and base. I will also be avoiding her wares.

  9. I think this is costing her more that she is going to make. I will no longer buy Zen Chic fabric or patterns and I will share the information to other sewists. Is that hard to get and a keep a job?

  10. Thank you so much, for calling them out on stealing your friends design, it so sad they can get away with such things. Going to buy the original block pattern from Patty, it's a very cool design. I've never done paper piecing, so cross your fingers.