For creatives in California, a recent employment law case may raise concerns over copyright ownership

This story was first published for the 1709 Blog, where I regularly write about copyright law in entertainment, technology and media. 

A California court ruling from April has raised concerns regarding its potential impact on copyright ownership. In Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angelesthe matter before the court was a wage dispute, which required the court to consider the standard to apply in determining whether workers should be classified as employees, or as independent contractors.

Nowhere in the 85-page judgement is “copyright” or even “intellectual property” mentioned. However, in a state with so many media and software companies, the new ruling could affect whether a creator or a company gets to claim ownership as the original author of a work. In deciding if a worker is eligible for statutory employment protections, Dynamex replaced a complex multi-factor consideration with a simple three-part “ABC” test. Now, Californian companies are burdened with the requirement to prove that all three parts weigh against an employment relationship.

What does this mean for copyright law? The rise of the gig economy, which is characterised by short-term contracts and freelance work, poses new questions for intellectual property ownership. To determine if someone is an employee for purposes of copyright authorship, American Federal courts currently use a test in the US Treasury Department’s Internal Revenue Service code.

If, however, the courts start looking to the Dynamex case for guidance, people’s expectations might change. Speaking to Bloomberg Law, music industry lawyer Michael S. Poster explained: “If, under California law, a lot more people are going to be treated as employees rather than as independent contractors, chances are that a lot of their work product that they would have retained a copyright interest in might belong to their employer.”

Although the Copyright Act of 1976 provides authors with initial copyright interests, under the work-made-for-hire doctrine, it is the employer that is considered to be the author. (Section 201(b)). On the other hand, if the author is an independent contractor or freelancer – rather than an employee – ownership is retained by the individual creator, unless there is a contractual agreement to the contrary.

For participants in the gig economy, the Dynamex ruling could simply prompt media and software companies to hire fewer independent contractors, and instead only hire people as employees. Although the copyright implications of Dynamex are unknown, the decision underscores the need for employers and workers alike to ensure that any contract for services includes a carefully drafted intellectual property rights clause – especially for those in creative industries.

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