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A Toxic Stew: Intellectual Property, Embroidering Grannies, Terrorism, and Invasion of Privacy

Searcey, Dionne. 2006. "Sewing and Suing Aren't a Happy Mix For Embroiderers." Wall Street Journal (14 September): p. A 1.

"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." "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."

"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"." "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."

"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."


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