Contractor Copyrights

Contractor
Contractor

Want to pay a contractor to produce creative material for you, and then actually own the copyrights? Getting ownership of contractor copyrights is tricky.

Copyrighted material – be it text, images, music, or code, is important for many creative and commercial efforts. None of us have the time or talent to do all of this ourselves, and so it is natural to turn to experts to help provide this material.

We could hire employees for this purpose.  However, many projects are of limited duration, and alas, unlike “the good old days” where employees had no rights and could be hired and fired at whim, these days employees actually have rights and benefits. These include unemployment insurance, social security, tax withholding, and the like. No one wants to go back to the Victorian era, but at the same time, it can be a hassle to employ someone.

Contractors are often used to avoid this hassle.  Contractors are expected to deliver results, but to do so in their own way. We pay money, expect to obtain the benefit of the deal, and then no more hassles or obligations. This simple expectation breaks down when it comes to IP, however, and contractor copyrights are particularly tricky.

To somewhat oversimplify, if you want to pay someone and obtain ownership of copyrighted material in return, the following legal considerations can apply:

  • Under Federal law, full copyright ownership requires a “work for hire” agreement
  • “Work for hire” agreements may imply (and in California, can define) that the worker is an employee
  • Employees are legally entitled to various employee benefits
  • Contractors are not legally entitled to employee benefits
  • Absent an assignment, copyright ownership remains with the contractor
  • Copyright ownership assignments must be in writing
  • Copyright assignments that are not “work for hire” can be terminated by the author or heirs after 35 years

This creates interesting legal problems.  It is common to put “work for hire” terms in contract agreements. The idea is to automatically acquire full copyright ownership this way.  However, such “work for hire” terms can be inconsistent or even incompatible with the definition of “contractor”.  This can open the door to potential legal headaches.

In an alternative approach, there is no “work for hire” clause, but as part of the deal, the author-contractor agrees to assign all contractor copyrights to the work that you have paid for. This is not perfect either. Additional assignment paperwork is often needed, and Federal copyright law allows an author-contractor to petition to terminate this assignment 35 years later.

35 years is fine for most purposes, but what if you are thinking on longer terms? Here, efforts to work around the 35-year copyright assignment termination issue should be considered. One option is to contract with a corporation that in turn “work for hire” employs the author.

Blurred lines: copyright AFC tests

Blurred lines

The “Blurred lines” music copyright case went wrong because courts are not using modern abstraction-filtration-comparison (AFC) infringement tests.

Copyright covers creative expression but not ideas or information.  Many copyrighted works, however, are a mixture of creative expression and ideas/information.  This mixture gives courts headaches, and as a result, copyright litigation can be unpredictable.

For software copyright infringement cases, courts tend to use an “abstraction-filtration-comparison” (AFC) test. The AFC test was first introduced in the 1992 “Computer Associates v. Altai” case.  For this test, the court (i.e. the judge with expert help) first “abstracts” (analyzes) the work and determines what parts are “expression” (copyright protected) and what parts are ideas (copyright ineligible).  Then the court removes (filters out) the ineligible idea portions. If there are questions about what remains, the court can give the remaining “expression” portions to a jury to decide.

This test puts a lot of responsibility on the court to get things right and is hard to perform in practice, but at least it makes some sort of logical sense.  Throw out the ineligible stuff, and just look at the rest.

The AFC test was inspired by the earlier “Scènes à Faire” (Scenes a Faire) concept often used for literary and movie copyrights. As a quick example, if you want to write a Western novel or film, then horses, guns, salons, bandits and the like are considered essential ideas, and these would be tossed out in a copyright case involving a Western theme.

So what went wrong in the recent “Blurred Lines” music copyright infringement case? The song admittedly tried to capture the party atmosphere of Marvin Gaye’s earlier “Got to Give it Up” song, but the lyrics and music were quite different. Both had party noises and “cowbell”, but these were different party noises and different cowbell. In fact, Marvin Gaye’s copyright was for sheet music that didn’t cover party noises and cowbell at all.

The problem is that outside of software, older tests, such as “objective substantial similarity” and “total concept and feel” are still being used.  These older tests blur the distinction between creative expression and ideas and rely on an unskilled jury to magically sort things out.

To somewhat simplify the “Blurred Lines” case, the jury listened to music that contained a mixture of creative expression (different lyrics and music) and unprotected ideas (generic party noises and cowbell). To make matters worse, the jury instructions did not even tell the jury to try to distinguish between creative expression and copyright ineligible ideas.

So, not surprisingly, the jurors found infringement; most likely because both songs contained party noises and cowbell.  Never mind that these were not covered by copyright and that as far as the actual copyrightable lyrics and music went, the two songs were quite different.

This case is presently on appeal. Various copyright experts have suggested that the way out of this mess is to expand the use of the AFC test from computer software to other types of copyright cases as well. Unfortunately, the law works slowly. Until then, go easy on the cowbell at parties.