Work-for-Hire and Copyright Lawsuits: 1st Circuit Sheds Light - U.S. First Circuit
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Work-for-Hire and Copyright Lawsuits: 1st Circuit Sheds Light

The First Circuit Court of Appeals issued a case earlier this week involving a copyright lawsuit between two Puerto-Rican television producers. The case is a typical "he-said/he-said" case centered around two very similar television shows about the antics and adventures of characters living within a condominium complex.

But who was the real author of the show? And to whom did the copyright belong? When two shows are that similar but still have a few minor differences, is there copyright infringement?

Quick Facts:

In 1997, a Puerto Rican television producer (Mojena) approached several others with the idea of creating a show involving a condominium complex and the characters who lived within it.

In 1999, one of the members of the original group (Logrono) defected to a rival station that was controlled by himself and his wife. There, he began airing a similar show about a condominium, featuring many of the same story lines, characters and even actors.

In 2000, Mojena brought a copyright infringement lawsuit against Logrono, his wife and the production company. Logrono counterclaimed, saying that he was the sole owner of the copyright, and claiming that they were his product. As such, he demanded royalties for their use by Mojena.

The district court granted summary judgment to Mojena, citing that the first three scripts were produced under a work-for-hire agreement with Mojena's company and that all later episodes were a derivative of the first three.

The Law:

After the court determined that Longrono was not the creator of the original three episodes, the question turned to the two men who actually did create the episodes. What was their ownership stake in the copyright?

As the court noted, in a work-for-hire agreement, the authorship lies with the production company and not the original writers.

Now, once the ownership of the copyright was determined, the next question the First Circuit Court of Appeals asked was whether or not there had been an infringement of the copyright. In plain English: Was there any "copying" of works that was so extensive that the two works were "substantially similar"? The court applied the district court's findings that there existed a "striking" similarity between the two works, despite the fact that Logrono's show had a few additional scenes and settings.

So there we have it: The copyright and authorship belong to the production company who initially hired the writers and not to the writers themselves. Furthermore, the tiny changes in detail made by Logrono didn't really mean much to the courts.

What was Logrono's fatal flaw in all of this? According to the court, he could never prove that he created the shows, since he kept no notes or documentation. Lesson learned -- always document the production of your works.

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