Fans of quilting personalities Marianne and Mary Fons were thrilled in February of this year when the mother daughter duo launched their own podcast. Called Quilt Your Heart Out the show was an hour-long call-in advice program for quilters.
A fan of the public radio show, Car Talk, Marianne Fons envisioned Quilt Your Heart Out as a show with a similar format, but across generations. At ages 66 and 36 Marianne and Mary would share wisdom about patchwork and about life. At the time of launch Mary wrote in a publicity email, “The quilter podcast space is wide open and Quilt Your Heart Out plans to be the most popular and well-loved podcast in the industry/community.”
Last week, after only 10 episodes, that plan was foiled. The show was shut down suddenly and completely. The only explanation given was a 30 second farewell spot, which disappeared shortly thereafter when the show was removed from iTunes, and a brief mention in a post on Mary’s blog, Paper Girl written in her signature conversational style. “Ever gotten a cease and desist letter?” she asks. “Wow, are they ever lame. I got one, once. I was told to cease and desist a really fun project that I was working on. I had to cancel it, too, or go to court and stuff. I really loved that podcast. Did I say that out loud? Where was I?”
In the three months it lasted Quilt Your Heart Out had built a solid fan base. It was downloaded 43,000 times, an impressive number for a new podcast. When the show disappeared listeners like Rachel Reid quickly showed their disappointment. “I waited patiently for new episodes every week,” she wrote in a comment on Mary’s post. “My mother and I enjoyed listening to it while we quilted together. This is outrageous.” Another listener, Nancy Neely, exclaimed, “The podcasts were great. How could they possibly be wrong?! Outrage!”
Photo of Marianne and Mary Fons by Brave Lux Photography.
To understand what may have happened to Quilt Your Heart Out, some history of the Fonses is helpful. In 1999 Marianne Fons and Liz Porter founded Fons & Porter, a quilting-focused media company that produced the Love of Quilting magazine which was picked up by PBS in 2003 and turned into a television show by the same name. New Track Media bought Fons & Porter in 2006 and in 2014 F+W bought New Track during an 18-month spree of acquiring craft media companies that also included the purchase of Interweave, Martha Pullen Company, and LoveSewing. Marianne Fons signed a non-compete upon the sale of the company.
After having co-hosted a few Love of Quilting episodes with her mother, Marianne, in 2011 Mary Fons, a performer and writer, proposed the idea for a show called Quilty that would focus on novice quilters like herself. She wanted to appeal to the new generation of Internet savvy quilters by putting the series on YouTube. Quilty ran for five years and aired over 250 6-10 minute episodes, each getting tens of thousands of views, some in the hundreds of thousands. She was also the editor of the Quilty print magazine until she parted ways with F+W at the end of 2014. Mary signed a non-compete as part of her employment contract with F+W. It expires at the end of 2017.
I reached out to Mary to find out exactly what happened to the podcast. She explained to me she is bound through the end of 2017 by the non-compete clause that she signed when she was hired by F+W. She also said that her mother is bound by a non-compete with F+W which was put into place when she sold Fons & Porter. Mary explained that both she and her mother are very fearful that F+W will take further legal action against them and therefore felt they couldn’t talk to the media about the fate of the podcast.
I contacted Sara Domville, president of F+W, and Kristi Loeffelholz, vice president for the Quilt + Sew community at the company, to see if I could learn more details. In a phone conversation Domville explained to me that F+W shut down the show due to a need to protect its trademark. “We take the protection of our brand seriously,” Domville said. “We paid millions of dollars for Fons & Porter and we have to protect our trademark. We can’t allow others to use the brand or we’ll lose it.”
A source close to the matter told me that there was a period of negotiations between the Fonses and F+W in an effort to save the podcast. Apparently F+W asked to rebrand the show as Fons & Porter’s Quilt Your Heart Out and to take a significant portion of the ad revenue. It seems that although the Fonses were willing to compromise to a degree, when the company also demanded full editorial control of the show negotiations fell apart ending with F+W issuing a cease and desist letter. Subsequently the show was shut down.
Over 60% of F+W’s total revenue is derived from art and craft media. Domville noted that the company has provided quality resources to the craft community for a long time and that craft is a key part of their business, but wouldn’t disclose any further details about the dissolution of the show itself.
“When you sell your brand you can’t do something that could confuse it in the marketplace,” Domville told me, noting that the situation is complicated by the fact that the trademark is also Marianne and Mary’s last name.
A trademark is a word, phrase or symbol that is used to identify and distinguish a particular company’s products. Trademark infringement happens when there’s a likelihood that consumers will become confused as to the source of the goods. It’s up to the owner of the trademark to monitor for potential infringement and put a stop to it, typically by sending a cease and desist letter to the infringer. Trademark holders risk losing their legal right to the trademark if they allow infringement to go unchecked. So according to Domville, F+W shut down Quilt Your Heart Out in order to protect the Fons & Porter trademark.
But would the average consumer really have confused Quilt Your Heart Out with something produced by Fons & Porter? Although F+W produces many different kinds of media, they don’t produce podcasts. It seems that Marianne Fons, who came up with the idea for the podcast, thought its content was different enough to not cause confusion. In an interview with Iowa Public Radio she described the show this way: “We do touch on quilting issues, but it’s very different than the how-to type of instruction that Fons & Porter is known for that Mary has done on television.” She goes on to say that the podcast is about people’s lives and about the psychology of quilting, making it different from the Love of Quilting television show and the Quilty YouTube series, which were about demonstrating quilting techniques.
Quilt Your Heart Out was a popular podcast despite its short lifespan. It had a unique format and the hosts have large and devoted followings. Negative publicity about shutting it down suddenly and completely could affect F+W’s reputation and the value of its trademark. Quilters are a community of passionate enthusiasts and although protecting a trademark is important, if it’s done in a way that the community feels is overly aggressive the company can be seen as a bully and the goodwill with customers can be eroded. A trademark is only valuable to a company when it has the ability to create commercial success through goodwill and good rapport with customers.
This isn’t the first instance in which F+W has acted in a way that some might perceive as harsh. In researching this story I spoke with multiple people who have worked at F+W in various capacities over many years. One summed up the company this way: “There was no consistent corporate strategy and the management structure became so draconian that decision making grew increasingly difficult. There seemed to be no regard for how the company or its brands were regarded in the marketplace, or for the quality of the products. When F&W took over, the management style changed from supportive and mentoring to one of micromanaging and small picture focus.” Others described the company as “the Death Star,” “the piranha of the crafts industry,” and “Voldemort.”
Domville and Loeffelholz see it differently. “There are two sides to every story,” Domville told me. She pointed out that F+W invested tremendous resources on product development and advertising to develop the Fons & Porter brand and that it’s vital for them to protect that asset. About the Fonses Loeffelholz said, “We’ve upheld our end of the contract. We just want to be sure the other parties are upholding theirs.”