In 1998, an art collector named William Arnett arrived in Wilcox County, Alabama. Over the next two years, he went door to door in the African-American hamlet of Gee’s Bend, asking women if he could see their quilts: vivid, off-kilter assemblages of worn denim, outgrown school dresses and other salvaged bits of cloth, particular to Gee’s Bend and nowhere else.

Most of the 275 residents of Gee’s Bend are descendants of slaves from once-thriving cotton plantations. At the time of Arnett’s first visit, a serious art collector was an unlikely presence on their doorsteps, not least because Gee’s Bend is so far off the beaten path—a tangle of red dirt roads and overgrown fields nestled into a deep arc of the Alabama River. There are no stores or offices; just trailers, retired barns, and houses built for a short-lived economic program by the Roosevelt administration, some 40 miles from the nearest pharmacy.

For years, Arnett, a native Southerner, collected Asian art, then African art, and ultimately, African-American art from the South. He saw quilts from the Bend in a Civil Rights–era photography book, and became determined to track down their makers.

To the women he would meet—Annie Mae Young, Mary Lee Bendolph, Lucy T. Pettway, and dozens of others—quilts were much loved, given as gifts on most every occasion, and made for everyday use: blankets, curtains, floor coverings.

To Arnett, they were graceful, honest works of art. They represented the hardship endured by that community, from slavery, to sharecropping, tenant farming, and the harrowing upheavals of the civil-rights struggle. History was spelled out in each one: in worn materials torn from old work clothes, in batting of cotton lint salvaged from the fields, in unexpected color palettes and their inspired riffs on traditional patterns, handed down and uniquely interpreted by hundreds of women across generations.

Over the coming years, he would purchase dozens of their masterpieces for $200 to $300 a piece—10 to 20 times the going rate, often a relative windfall for the makers, many of whom were seniors, subsisting on Social Security checks, and living well below the poverty line. He was determined to introduce their work into the existing narrative of contemporary American art.

And, to the extent that one man can affect the art world, he succeeded.

Throughout the mid 2000s, the quilts were shown around the country at the Smithsonian, the Whitney, and other major American art museums from Atlanta to Minneapolis to San Francisco. They were widely written about in the press, drawing frequent comparison to Klee, Rothko, and Mondrian, and emblazoned on a limited-edition series of United States postage stamps. The quilt makers, who had not previously thought of themselves as artists, rode buses from Alabama to the early New York openings, dressed in their Sunday best, to see the quilts that had once kept their children warm in the winters displayed before throngs of museum-goers.

Work by Young, Bendolph, and others appeared on coffee mugs, designer scarves, VISA Gift Cards, rugs and lampshades by Sports Illustrated model turned entrepreneur Kathy Ireland, and as replicas available for $298 a pop at Anthropologie.

Some of the artists—and their children—saw the fervor around the quilts, and wondered why their share of a supposed fortune had not materialized. And if you’ve been to that tangle of red dirt roads on the Alabama River, you’d understand why.

Last year, Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the region, and told an Alabama news outlet that he had not previously been aware of conditions of this severity in the developed world. A number of homes are without septic systems. The post office was closed some years ago, after the postmaster became ill from black mold. It was from this disparate vantage that, in 2007, a small handful of women filed lawsuits against Arnett, challenging their history of handshake agreements—work exchanged for cash with no paperwork nor contract.

Funds that were set aside in escrow from the proceeds of the licensing and other activities, and that were intended to benefit the community at large, instead went to settling the lawsuits, benefiting only the plaintiffs and dividing the community.

Many were grateful for Arnett’s efforts, and, satisfied with having sold the quilts to him in the first place, saw no need for litigation. “I have no real beef with [the Arnetts], other than the fact that they just wasn’t organized in my sense,” said Rubin Bendolph. He helps promote the work and legacy of his mother, Mary Lee Bendolph, now 83 and living beside her daughter—also a quilt maker—in Gee’s Bend. “They brought [the quilt makers] out of the darkness,” Mr. Bendolph said, “and into the light so that people could see who they are and what their stories were.”

After the lawsuits, one change did take hold: Everyone in Gee’s Bend had learned the term copyright—a set of rights inherent to the creator of an artwork that gives control over how images and reproductions of the work are used, and creates a pathway to licensing fees.

“I sold quilts, I got paid for ’em. In that sense, I’m like Walmart.” says Mary Margaret Pettway, quilt maker and lifelong resident of Gee’s Bend. “The bonus is the copyright, which we did not know we had, or we were entitled to.” Pettway lives in a worn trailer at the end of a steep, dirt driveway; when we spoke, she was quilting in the corner of a community center that serves a daily free lunch to seniors.

As a general matter, copyright is inherited, like any part of one’s estate—an immaterial heirloom. In some countries, like Australia, artists receive royalties on a resale, so if a quilt were purchased for $200 and next sold to a museum for $20,000, the artist would benefit, receiving some percentage of the increase. In the United States, at least for now, there are no resale royalties; copyright can police only the most egregious instances of appropriation, paying scant dividends on use of images of the work. But at least, as Ms. Pettway puts it, “it acknowledges the quilter.”

Many Bend residents have little to pass on to their children but their quilts. If those quilts were long ago removed to hang on the walls of a museum in a faraway city, the copyright attached means that they can still, in an abstract way, be handed down. In the absence of a final will and testament by the artist, copyright is inherited along pathways of descent that vary state by state. In Alabama, if someone like Ms. Pettway has no living descendants—children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren—copyright transfers to her siblings. If all siblings are deceased, it rolls to their direct descendants. If no siblings, then it would be divided among grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and next to their descendants. If none of those people are living, claim of copyright is awarded to the state of Alabama until the work passes into the public domain, 70 years after the death of the artist.

Pettway leans over her quilting frame, hand-stitching a recreation of her mother Lucy’s Birds in the Air (1981). “Basically,” she says, “we’re living history. We’re being taught everywhere.” Painter Amy Sherald, who created Michelle Obama’s official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, included a reference to that very quilt in the first lady’s dress. This makes Pettway proud.

Even so, if we’re talking about exploitation, she said, the quilt makers have never been more exploited than they are now. In an era of commercialization, globalization, and social media, there are plenty of imitations, and a veritable craze of quilts and goods that are #geesbendinspired across Instagram and Etsy. These are created by artisans who no doubt appropriate the aesthetic of Gee’s Bend—but do so in a manner that is entirely disconnected from its origin.

Now, William Arnett is retired, and the William S. Arnett collection—more than 1,100 works of art by 160 African-American artists from the South, including 120 quilt makers—is managed by an Atlanta-based nonprofit formed by the Arnetts in 2010: the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Since 2014, the foundation has been dedicated to placing the works, by gift or purchase, into the permanent collections of leading art museums.

More importantly for the artists, with each acquisition, the foundation’s four-person staff takes steps to reconnect the quilt makers with news of and plans for their work, ensuring that they are set up to dictate how images of their work are used, and to receive any income, however modest, from such usage.

Of course, in a place like Gee’s Bend, there are challenges in administering these benefits, not limited to long searches for some of the living heirs, sometimes even requiring the engagement of private investigators.

Consider the case of quilt maker Magalene Wilson, who passed away in 2001 at age 100. “Interestingly, up until last week,” says Souls Grown Deep’s Scott Browning, “we thought her name was ‘Magdelene.’” That’s how she was credited over a decade of exhibition and publication of work.

Mary McCarthy, who came to Gee’s Bend with the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, works with Souls Grown Deep repairing quilts, and serves informally as the Bend’s local historian. She recently sent Browning a picture of Wilson’s headstone, revealing the error in the spelling of her name. He confirmed “Magalene” in census and Social Security records, but her date of birth remains unclear: “The Gee’s Bend books list it as 1898,” he says, “her grave marker as 1900, the US Social Security Death index as 1897, while the US Social Security Applications and Claims Index has it as 1901.”

The next step is to track down Wilson’s heirs, which can be complicated for the same reasons, in many cases compounded by the nature of surnames in a community with roots in slavery. Historically, slaves took the name of the plantation on which they worked, and in Gee’s Bend, after the departure of Joseph Gee and the dispersal of his slaves, the Pettway family ran the largest plantation in the area. Of the 120 quilters on the foundation’s list, no fewer than 50 share the last name Pettway, though they may not be related by blood. You’ll find many Youngs and Williamses in the Bend for the same reasons.

Accordingly, it has sometimes taken years for the foundation to locate all of the heirs who would divide one artist’s copyright between them. In this case, Browning was days from hiring a private investigator. It took him weeks, and the on-site help of Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Pettway, to locate Gwendolyn “Zu” Pettway, the granddaughter of Wilson’s brother, and seemingly her last living relative.

Zu Pettway is now aware that she owns copyrights. But those rights will require enforcement.

Few publishing houses, museums, and other institutions—however prestigious—are eager to pay for usage for an image. Enter the Artists Rights Society, which represents the intellectual property rights of over 80,000 artists and estates, from Frida Kahlo to Andy Warhol to Le Corbusier. Souls Grown Deep approached ARS to track requests, review contracts, process payments, and pursue usage opportunities for the artists in the Arnett collection. With the addition of Zu Pettway to the ARS roster, the rights of 61 of the 120 quilt makers on Browning’s list are now represented. But it is a constant, everyday battle to make sure that images aren’t used without permission, and that when copyright fees are owed, the artists get paid, and fairly.

Today, Scott Browning is retracing William Arnett’s steps, knocking on quilt makers’ doors in the Black Belt’s sweltering late summer heat. He arrives at Flora Moore’s trailer, on a dirt lane not from far where she has lived since 1951.

Moore was one of many quilt makers who traveled with the Arnetts to the early museum openings—the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Milwaukee Art Museum. “I was surprised and so happy to see my work on the wall,” she said over the roar of the A/C unit in her living room. “Really, to tell you the truth, now, we were so excited to see some of them. Started crying and talkin’ about, ‘Ooh, we took that and made that from nothing and now look how people got us up here.’ Made us feel good.”

Browning points to one of Flora’s quilts in a large hardcover book. “You remember that one right there.”

Moore pulls back and laughs, as if seeing an old picture of herself.

“So this is going into the permanent collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Then you probably recognize that one.” He points to another. “That we’re gifting to the Fine Arts Museum at Spelman College.” It’s a great honor, Browning tells her, so he was here to share that news, to make sure she knew where her work was going, “and another thing that we’ve been talking to people about,” he continues, “is copyright.”

Moore had heard the term before, when news of the lawsuits buzzed through the neighborhood. “Copyright this, copyright that.… One of my cousins tried to get me—you know those quilts you just got through showin’ me?—He told me, ‘You can put a lawsuit against this.’ I told him, ‘I ain’t puttin’ no lawsuit against [the Arnetts]; they’ve been too good to us to put a lawsuit against them.”

“Now, it’s not a fortune,” Browning assures Moore. He walks her through examples of artists whose quilts appeared in the exhibition catalog at the de Young museum in San Francisco. They received $75 each. Artists with work on coffee mugs at the gift shop received $350. For deceased quilters, living heirs would be asked for their approval of the image use, and then would divide that sum among them.

“Well, I want to become a member.” Moore signs the contract Browning handed her, bringing the number of quilters represented by ARS up to 62. “Something’s better than nothing!”

While the dollar amounts are small, and unlicensed artifacts like “Quilts of Gee’s Bend” greeting-card sets are sold to this day at Black Belt Treasures gift shop right across the river, the significance of the contract Moore just signed is not. Copyright protection by the Artists Rights Society is the first time the quilters have had a lasting connection to the work they sold, or any agency in its usage, since it left their homes.

“I’m happy,” Moore said, “because you just sit down and just think all the things you have done that you can’t see no more. It’s nice to know somebody’s thinking about me and trying to bring some of my quilts back and let me look at them again.”