Partner Does Not Equal Copyright Joint Owner

by Tamera H. BennettJanuary 31, 2008

We have fact patterns come through the door frequently where a partnership or other business relationship has gone south and suddenly one partner is claiming co-ownership or co-authorship of copyrighted works by virtue of the business relationship of the parties.

In Gordon v. Allen, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 66 (5th Cir. 2008), a similar fact pattern arose with the subject matter of the copyrights relating to the assassination of JFK.

A state court dispute between business associates in 1999 found that a partnership existed between the plaintiff and defendant in this current case. The Plaintiff had created certain copyright protected works. In the state court case Defendant converted existing physical copies of the work and was selling the works. There was no action for copyright infringement. The state court found for Allen, the defendant.

In 2002, Plaintiff discovered Defendant selling the same works without his permission and also derivative works. Plaintiff brought a suit for copyright infringement.

Defendant filed a motion of summary judgment on numerous grounds. The most interesting ground to me was the following:

Third, [Defendant] asserts that the district court erred in denying her motion for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL") at the close of [Plaintiff's] evidence. In her motion, [Defendant] argued that she had conclusively established copyright ownership in a partnership between herself and [Plaintiff] and therefore, she could not have infringed on any copyrights by reproducing and selling the works.

[Defendant] contends that the district court erred in denying her motions because: (1) by virtue of a 1999 state court judgment, the copyrights to The Killing of a President--Dealey Plaza Memorial Edition (1997), The Killing of a President--Dealey Plaza Memorial Edition (1998), The Killing of a President--a video magazine, and The Dealey Plaza Guidebook vested in her as a co-author because the implied partnership was the author of the works, and (2) the copyrights to The Killing of a President: The Complete Photographic Record of the JFK Assassination, the Conspiracy, and the Cover-Up; The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald; High Treason; JFK: The Case for Conspiracy; and the Assassination Films were transferred to her by operation of law. See 17 U.S.C. § 201(d)(1). [Defendant] claims that the state court judgment conclusively effected a transfer of the copyrights by operation of law to the partnership, and implicitly, to her as a partner. We disagree. The state court judgment (which set out the jury's findings) stated:

Did Jackie Diane Allen and Robert Groden agree in 1997 to contribute their respective money, effects, labor and skills to New Frontier Publications with the understanding they would thereafter equally share its profits, losses and assets between them?

Answer: Yes

That interrogatory establishes neither co-authorship under 17 U.S.C. § 101 nor a transfer by operation of law under 17 U.S.C. § 201(d)(1). Consequently, the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying Allen's motion for a new trial.

My take away from this unpublished opinion is that existence of a partnership or of a formal business entity such as a corporation or LLC alone is not enough to establish that the entity owns the copyrights. Of course, there may be other issues that come into play involving employees and work for hire. Those issues were not part of this case, and many times are not part of the case of disgruntled partners.

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