Monday, November 09, 2009

7th Circuit decision on who gets to "copyright" derivative works

Here's a good lesson in how to bite the hand that previously fed you.

In Schrock v. Learning Curve Int'l, Inc., No. 08-1296 (7th Cir. Nov. 5, 2009), the owner of copyrights in toy characters licensed a company to make the toys. The toy maker then licensed a photographer to take photos of the toys for marketing purposes. When the toymaker stopped using the photographer, the photographer registered the photos and sued the character owner and the toymaker for copyright infringement for continuing to use the photos. The district court dismissed the photographer's case, saying that the photographer needed permission to "copyright" the photos.

The 7th Circuit reinstated the photographer's claim. Assuming that the photos were derivative works, the 7th Circuit held a couple of things. First, it held that derivative works are subject to the same minimal originality requirements as any other type of work and the photos of the toys were original enough for copyright protection as derivative works.

Second, it noted that, to sue for infringement, the person creating the derivative work must have both (a) the permission of the owner of the copyright in the underlying work to create the derivative work (not a problem in this case) and (b) the right to "copyright" the derivative work. As to (b), however, the 7th Circuit disagreed with the district court, noting that copyright law normally vests the copyright in the derivative work in the creator of the derivative work unless the owner of the underlying copyright contractually alters this ownership arrangement.

Since the record was inconclusive on whether the arrangement was contractually altered, the court remanded the case.

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