In this article the author explores the story of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, tracing the emergence of this group of isolated, disenfranchised craftswomen as both fine artists and the unlikely purveyors of mass-market consumer culture through commodification based on the power of intellectual property rights. The author then looks to recent trends in commodification literature to help explore the tensions and dualities presented in the story. Among other things, the article asks whether the quilters have been coerced into the marketplace and are unwittingly alienating part of their identity, or whether they have willingly tapped the power of the marketplace to ultimately better their lives and community. The quilters’ arrangement with Tinwood Alliance, an Atlanta-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting vernacular art, is based loosely on notions of moral rights and the droit de suite. The quilters’ partnership with Tinwood focuses at least to some degree on an ongoing dialogue with and concern for the needs and desires of the quilters and community of Gee’s Bend. The arrangement also grants them some degree of agency and control over the decisions made and the revenues earned, particularly with regard to the recent quilts in which they retain all the rights. Their arrangement with the Tinwood Alliance, though achieved by contract, may well be a model for addressing the needs and desires of similarly disenfranchised creators and creative communities. The author suggests that the commodification story of the quilters may shed some light on possible ways to structure the quality of social relationships and may inform both the current debate in commodification literature and the ongoing search for a more nuanced approach to intellectual property laws.
Phillips, Victoria. “Commodification, Intellectual Property and the Women of Gee’s Bend.” American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 15, no. 2 (2007): 359-377.