From the Wall Street Journal. About sewing design, but this looks
like the wave of the future for all design. Good for us, or not?
Sewing and Suing
Aren’t a Happy Mix
High-Tech Stitching Brings
With It Copyright Issues
And Talk of Defamation
By DIONNE SEARCEY
September 14, 2006; Page A1
Janet Ebert, a longtime embroidery hobbyist, logged onto the
Internet last year and found images of flowers and cuddly animals.
Altering them with special software on her home computer, she created
versions of the designs that she stitched on quilts for her five
grandchildren. She used a computerized Singer embroidery machine,
and sold some of the designs online for about $2 each.
A few weeks later, a courier appeared on Ms. Ebert’s front porch in
House Springs, Mo., with legal papers informing her that she was
being sued. The complaint said she had violated copyright law and
that some of the designs she had sold belonged to embroidery company
Action Tapes Inc., in Dallas.
“Who in the you-know-what is this company?” Ms. Ebert, 61, recalls
thinking. “I’ve never bought their designs, and I still don’t buy
As this old-fashioned craft of decorative needlework goes high-tech
with designs once sold by mail or in sewing shops, it has unleashed
a 21st-century battle.
Sewing and design companies are engaging in piracy disputes similar
to those waged by the music, movie and fashion businesses. Some
buyers and sellers of designs are confused about the copyright
issues buzzing around the honey bees and sunsets they stitch on
quilts and clothing.
Embroiderers used to buy patterns of angels, flowers or other
designs published by sewing companies at five-and-dime shops. They
would iron the outlines of the designs onto fabric and stitch around
them by hand, creating unique, colorful patches on clothing and
blankets. Today, many buy digital forms of the designs from sewing
company Web sites that offer downloads or disks. The designs are then
executed by computerized sewing machines, costing as much as $7,000,
that sew the images onto fabric.
The problem: Sewing companies license their designs for a few
dollars each to consumers for their personal use. Designs commonly
come with legal language explaining how they can be used. Still, some
hobbyists then resell them on the Web as their own creations.
Fed up with such practices, the Embroidery Software Protection
Coalition, a small group of sewing companies including Action Tapes,
Great Notions Inc., Pfaff American Sales and others, aggressively
began pursuing legal action against hundreds of embroidery buffs.
Nearly 1,500 have been sent menacing letters on stationery stamped
with the coalition’s logo – a stitched-looking letter “C” with a
needle and thread attached – that threaten them with steep fines
and court judgments for buying counterfeit embroidery designs. Some
of the letters tell the buyers the coalition will back off any legal
action if they pay fees for their “past wrongful conduct.”
Dozens of embroiderers took to online sewing forums to anonymously
complain about the coalition’s efforts, accusing the coalition of
shaking down innocent sewers.
In turn, the coalition in June sent a subpoena to Yahoo Inc., which
hosts one embroidery forum, to find the identities of sewers such as
"suelikessewingtoo" and “nanaanniesews” so it can consider suing
them for defamation, according to the coalition.
In its legal filings, it likened some of the stitchers’ online
screeds to “terrorist activities” and accuses them of posting
slanderous statements “that marched across the Internet bulletin
boards and chat groups similar to Hitler’s march across Europe.”
Gary Gardner, president of the coalition, says his group sometimes
has no choice but to get tough, even with the little old ladies
everyone agrees constitute the largest demographic of embroiderers.
“Although they’re a grandma, they’re not a nice grandma,” Mr.
Gardner says. “Some of them are outright vicious, even when we point
out to them what they’re doing is illegal.”
Some of the sewing companies say they have lost half their business
to design pirates. Phil Newton, president of Oklahoma Embroidery
Supply & Design, says that no more than three weeks after his
company releases new designs, he sees them being resold online for a
fraction of the price he charges. One of the largest producers of
licensed designs in the U.S., his company offers 8,000 copyrighted
designs for roughly $8 each. He recently found 250,000 designs, some
of them belonging to his company, for sale online for just $49.
“We spend millions of dollars each year to make the products,
advertise and pay royalties to artists,” Mr. Newton says. “If we
don’t slow it down, there’s not a lot of reason to be in this
According to the Craft and Hobby Association, a trade group,
embroidery is among the most popular of the “needle arts” – a $4.2
billion industry. And more hobbyists than ever are turning to
digital sewing. Dozens of independent digitizers have sprouted up to
peddle embroidery designs online, joining small design companies and
sewing giants such as Viking Sewing Machines Inc. that sell designs
to complement their sewing-machine sales.
The coalition has a team of investigators who troll online
auctioneers such as eBay for obvious counterfeiters offering batches
of thousands of designs for low prices.
One investigator bought CD-ROMs Ms. Ebert was selling on eBay last
year that included copyrighted designs, coalition attorneys say. Ms.
Ebert insists she sold only designs that were her own, which she
created using free and legal clip art she found on the Internet. She
calls the companies “the design police.” The pending lawsuit in
Missouri is seeking unspecified damages. An earlier lawsuit against
her, filed in Texas, failed because of jurisdiction issues.
When the companies catch counterfeiters, some hand over names of
their buyers as part of a legal settlement. In June, Sue Schultz, an
embroiderer in Florida, received a letter from the coalition telling
her some designs of trucks and cars her husband purchased for her in
December 2005 were counterfeit. “We were shocked,” Ms. Schultz says.
“My stomach was completely upset.”
When she phoned the coalition, she says, lawyers told her to send a
$300 check to make amends. The coalition acknowledges that it
sometimes resorts to such demands. Unsure of the legitimacy of the
operation, Ms. Schultz did nothing, though she says she now buys
designs exclusively from established sellers.
Ms. Schultz and others have complained on Internet forums about the
letters that they say amount to a shakedown. Two of them have
enlisted the help of an Internet privacy group called the Electronic
Frontier Foundation to quash the subpoena sent to Yahoo, aiming to
protect anonymity online and citing First Amendment concerns.
The coalition has since withdrawn the subpoena, but attorney Carole
Faulkner says she is working on a new, narrower subpoena and still
has plans to sue some forum members for defamation. Corynne
McSherry, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says
the coalition’s “shotgun approach is aimed not at redressing
defamation, but at intimidating those who have sought to raise public
awareness of its ham-fisted tactics.” She says she is pleased the
subpoena was withdrawn. Yahoo declined to comment.
Faced with complaints from embroiderers as well as from some member
companies, the coalition has revised its legal filings, toning some
down a bit. The sewing companies acknowledge some sellers and buyers
may not realize that the designs of common images such as angels and
teddy bears are copyrighted. They say a campaign to raise awareness
of copyrights has had little impact.
Ms. Ebert began her embroidery hobby when she was growing up on a
farm in rural Missouri, stitching quilts by hand with her mother and
grandmother to guide her. Digital embroidery is similarly satisfying
but much easier, she says.
“When I have a lot on my mind or a lot going on in my life, I find
that digitizing designs and sewing things puts my mind at ease and
takes my mind off everyday problems,” says Ms. Ebert, who threaded
her first needle at age 10. “It’s an enjoyment that gives me peace
It has been particularly soothing as Ms. Ebert has become tangled in
a legal battle with the embroidery industry. She says she has
embroidered three quilt tops in just two weeks.