This is a fairly common thing to see, particularly with regard to 'licensed' fabrics and particularly for fabrics more than a couple of years old. But is it actually true? Can a designer sell a fabric (or any supply) to an individual but then stipulate what it is used for? Companies like Disney, Warner Brothers, and professional sports teams all have a history of stipulating 'personal use only' on their fabrics. And, in a way, that is semi-logical as cartoon characters and team names / logos are copyright. I can't start printing my own Disney fabric. Technically speaking I can't even sell derivative works like Hello Kitty appliques I made out of felt or screenprinted t-shirts with movie names on them. But what happens if the companies themselves sell yardage of fabric featuring trademarked / copyrighted things? Can they restrict its use (which suggests that although you bought the fabric, they still have ownership) or by releasing it into the market do they forfeit their right to say how it's used?
I researched this quite a bit when I was starting out and it was even more contentious at that time. Beyond the big corporations mentioned above, even smaller fabric designers who didn't use trademarked characters or logos wanted to restrict usage. In late 2006, Amy Butler climbed down from her original limited use policy as did Heather Ross, after there was considerable uproar within the crafting community and it was pointed out that the law just did not support it. American case law says that businesses cannot restrict usage if they themselves are the ones that release it. From the First Sale Doctrine:
"The whole point of the first sale doctrine is that once the copyright owner places a copyrighted item in the stream of commerce by selling it, he has exhausted his exclusive statutory right to control its distribution."Justice Stevens, delivering an opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court in the case QUALITY KING DISTRIBUTORS, INC. v. L'ANZA RESEARCH INT'L, INC. (96-1470), 98 F.3d 1109, reversed.
Added to several cases that have been brought to court and decided in favour of the person using licensed fabric, or settled out of court because the fabric supplier was most likely going to lose, it appears that it should be permissible to use licensed fabric to make items for sale. But that does not stop auctions being shut down on Ebay or Cease and Desist letters being issued. Corporations can rely on their relative wealth and size to intimidate people into thinking that they can't use their fabric for non-personal use.
But what about in the UK? I couldn't find a single court case to clarify what the position is here. I do know, however, of at least two people within the UK craft scene who have been told by a very well known British fabric brand that they cannot use their fabric for things they planned to sell. And they probably won't (as I wouldn't) because of the potential for Drama.
So what do you think about the licensed fabric debate? As far as I'm concerned, as long as you are clear that you are in no way affiliated or officially sanctioned by the company (e.g. by saying 'made with so-and-so fabric' instead of the more ambiguous 'so-and-so product') that you should be able to use fabric that you legally bought for whatever you'd like. I do feel more uncomfortable about re-purposed things, like if a designer screenprinted a tablecloth and you cut it up to make dresses. But that's just me. What does everyone else think?
Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer so nothing I say here (or anywhere else) should be taken as legal fact. But my Dad is so I have his clever genes. I am also not incriminating myself for making the Care Bear hoodie if that was Bad Ass because Kirsty bought the fabric and hired me to sew it. Do not bother to sue me.
Pretty much the Bible about fabric licensing is here on Tabberone
Also, very handy 'Fabric and the Law' tag on True Up.