Royalty-Free vs Public Domain Quilt Patterns (Copyright Law)

Can you or can’t you. That is the question when you are looking at different quilt designs to use for your own quilting project. When you come across a pretty fabric design you should check to see if you have to pay a royalty or have free access to the design.

This is an interesting question but there is little discussion on the topic when it comes to quilting. The Library of Congress has a copyright-free page and they say “The Library believes that this content is either in the public domain, has no known copyright, or has been cleared by the copyright owner for public use.”

To learn more about quilts and copyright laws just continue to read our article. It may be hard to copyright circles, squares, and so on but instructions may be a different story. It is also hard to say if one person copied another or came up with the same design independently and without knowledge of the other person’s work.

Are Quilt Patterns Copyrighted?


Here is a quote that may explain this issue and answer the question: “According to the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), “Works eligible for protection under copyright include patterns, diagrams and instructions for making quilts, written materials that talk about quilts and the making of quilts, and quilt designs, regardless of whether those designs appear in a pattern or diagram for the quilt, in a software program that lets the user make the quilt, or in the quilt itself.” (highlight ours).

The key word in that explanation is the term ‘eligible’. That doesn't mean that all quilts, patterns, etc., are copyrighted from the get go. There is a process to be copyrighted and the producer of those aforementioned items needs to publish their creation in a public manner or register their creation with the government.

If they don’t then their work is royalty-free and in the public domain. But copyright laws can be confusing and there is a fair use exception and one has to determine if they are copying the other person’s work under true fair use ideals.

The Library of Congress also states the following-- “Whenever possible, each collection has its own rights statement which should be consulted for guidance on use.” In other words, don’t assume you can use just any design in any manner you want.

Public Domain Quilt Block Patterns

As someone once mentioned any quilt or pattern etc., made before 1923 is in public domain. Unless renewed by the estate of the originator the copyrights expire and anyone can use those designs for their own purposes.

Between 1923 and 1963 quilt designs, etc., are in public domain only if the person or estate did not renew their copyright on those designs, etc. On top of that, if the quilt design, etc. were put into the public domain by the creator or the copyright laws do not cover those items, then you are free to use them as you wish.

No one can copyright an idea or general design of a quilt but that changes if they put their instructions in writing and add drawings or photos. Those instructions and images can be copyrighted and are almost automatically upon creation.

Those block quilt designs you love from early American or European history, etc., are free to use as long as they fall into those categories mentioned above. You can’t use the instructions etc. if the copyright has been extended or still in full force.

Royalty and Copyright Free Quilt Patterns


Royalty-free simply means that you do not have to pay the creator or his or her estate a fee for the use of their designs. Generally, all copyright designs, etc., are royalty-free when there is no copyright in force.

You are not breaking a law by reproducing copyright or royalty-free quilt designs. The key term in that heading is the word ‘free’. That 5 letter word says it all. It means that no laws are governing the use or reuse of those designs and you can use them guilt-free and legally.

When you do your search for quilt patterns, you should see the word ‘free’ in many of the result titles. That tells you that there are no restrictions made by the website or the creators of those designs.

The problem will come in if the website or creator doesn't use the word free. You may have to send a note to them asking if you can use their designs and they will tell you if there is a fee or not. It is best not to assume.

Quilt Pattern Copyright Law

The problem with quilt pattern copyright law is that it can be difficult to navigate and be confusing to understand. While the idea cannot be copyrighted, the written instructions and images can and this will include a pattern.

According to copyright law, the moment the creator writes a pattern it is copyrighted. This is printed material and the information on that pattern is now protected by copyright. This is similar to when you write a book or other written material. It is under your copyright as soon as you complete it.

When a pattern is under copyright, you cannot reproduce or copy the pattern. You can pay a fee for the right to reproduce the item in that pattern but that permission does not grant you the right to sell it to someone else. You can give it to them but you can’t sell it.

But that rule is also not set in stone and the exceptions help create confusion. One of the ways around this part of the copyright law is to be granted a license. This license allows you to reproduce the item in the pattern and sell those items you have made.

But licensing is not usually free. You will have to pay a fee in order to be granted permission to use the pattern to make money off of it.

Finding Free Quilt Patterns to Copy


This is not going to be hard. Many websites on the internet will pop up after you click the search button. Just put in words like copyright-free quilt patterns, royalty-free quilt patterns, and so on and you will be overwhelmed by the possible millions of results you get back.

The result titles should read something like public domain quilting patterns, royalty-free quilting patterns, and even copyright free quilting patterns or something similar. Those titles should tell you that you can use the patterns offered by those websites without worry.

There should be no law broken and it is possible that you can resell the items you make from those patterns without having to pay a fee or a fine. But just in case, read the fine print.

You never know when someone will place something restricting your use on their websites. Make sure and double-check to make sure that those advertised free patterns are actually free to use as you wish.

Can You Sell Items Made From a Copyrighted Pattern?

Only if you have permission from the creator or his or her estate to do so. Without that permission, you are not at liberty to sell any item made from a copyrighted pattern.

Generally, you will need that permission in writing and the details should be clearly written out and agreed to by both parties. Doing legal work is never easy as there are so many loopholes and a sharp lawyer can find them all, either in your favor or against you.

Once you get that license you are then bound by the terms set out in that license and cannot exceed any permissions that have been granted. Make sure the license says what you need it to say in order to be able to proceed with your plans.

What that means is that you may need a lawyer to help you get the license written in the manner you need it written or to negotiate with the creator of the design.

Is it Legal to Sell Clothes Made from Patterns?


To get the answer to that question, you have to read the pattern cover or instructions carefully. If those patterns and instructions state for home use or personal use only, then it is illegal to sell clothing made from those patterns.

If those words or similar ones are not present then you should be free to sell any clothing you make from those patterns. BUT, the interpretations of those words or lack of them will vary between lawyers.

You have to be careful when you do sell any clothing that restricts permissions and you can get into a lot of trouble when you do not pay a licensing fee to the owner of the pattern.

You should not assume that you have the right or freedom to use someone else’s work for personal gain. You can give those clothing items away but you cannot profit from them if you do not have permission to do so.

What Makes This so Confusing

There are reasons why this area of quilting or sewing is so confusing. One reason is that copyright laws are not all straight forward and there are quite a few exceptions to those laws. But that isn't the complete confusing part.

The main reason this issue is so murky and confusing is that there are other laws that may have some say in what you can do with a pattern. Sometimes trademark laws come into play and sometimes they don’t.

Or patent laws may also make things harder for you to use a pattern and so on. Different laws cover different aspects of created content. It is not just the copyright laws you have to worry about.

Links That Should Help You


If you are not familiar with legalize, copyright, or other laws then the links we provide here will give you more information and help answer some of your questions. The first link is the Library of Congress page so you can see all the wording we didn’t quote.

This link will explain the difference between trademarks, patents, and copyrights. Then when you click this link, it will explain some copyright complexities even though it is not talking about quilts. it is talking about art, which some quilts qualify as.

Then if you still have questions, this link takes you to a copyright and quilting FAQ page. Finally, you can go to the website at this link and receive more information and answers to a couple of difficult questions.


To protect ourselves we do have to put this disclaimer in just in case. At no time are we lawyers nor are we dispensing legal advice. At no time should the above content be construed as legal advice, instruction, or direction. The content is provided as information only to help our readers get the answers to their questions and understand this issue better.

If you are still not clear about this issue we suggest you contact a lawyer who knows copyright laws and can provide the necessary legal advice to help you proceed.

Some Final Words

When you see a pattern that looks very attractive to you and you want to copy it, make sure you are free to do so. While not everyone goes after copyright infringements there are still some who do and they do it very vigorously.

No one expects you to know everything about quilting and copyright law so make sure you contact a lawyer and get the right advice for your situation. There are also other laws to consider as well.

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