BY G. A. FINCH
You are leaving your job or you have already left. After you leave, you want to use all of your power point presentations, white papers, newsletter articles, and blog posts that you did for your employer. Not so fast. Are you allowed to do that? Who owns the written work that you produced? Increasingly I am called to advise incoming or departing executives and professionals on how to preserve and protect their intellectual property rights or understand how to avoid violating the intellectual property rights of their former employers. This post focuses on copyrights, not trademarks or patents or trade secrets.
You need to know the copyright laws. You also need to know what confidentiality/intellectual property agreements you may have signed either in an employment agreement or in a separation/severance agreement or both.
The basics for a copyright are:
- A work must be original
- A work must be completed and in tangible form like a written article
- A copyright holder has the right to reproduce, to distribute, to modify the work, and to perform or display it
- A copyright holder does not have to register his\her\its work to gain copyright protection and does not have to display the copyright symbol
An employee should note well that ordinarily the employee’s work authored within the defined scope of employee’s employment constitutes a work made for hire. Although the employee physically created the work, the employee may not own it, rather the employer does. Most savvy employers will eliminate any legal ambiguity of copyright ownership by having the employee sign intellectual property and invention assignment agreements.
Although they can vary in length from three sentences to two pages, an assignment of intellectual property provision typically looks like the following:
“ASSIGNMENT OF INVENTIONS. I agree that I will promptly make full written disclosure to the Company, will hold in trust for the sole right and benefit of the Company, and hereby assign to the Company, or its designee, all my right, title, and interest in and to any and all inventions, original works of authorship, developments, concepts, improvements, designs, discoveries, ideas, trademarks or trade secrets, whether or not patentable or registrable under copyright or similar laws, which I may solely or jointly conceive or develop or reduce to practice, or cause to be conceived or developed or reduced to practice, during the period of time I am in the employ of the Company ….”
Prior to commencing employment, an employee would do well to carve out in a written agreement any invention, original works of authorship, etc. to ensure such work product or invention is not assigned or deemed owned by employee’s new employer. Also prior to any departure, the employee should set out in an agreement what works employee created that were not created on the job or are not assigned to the company.
When the employee does not own the written work employee created, the most obvious and practical thing to do is simply ask permission from the previous employer.
Lastly, there is a limited way to use copyrighted material without permission and not infringe. This way is called “fair use.” For example, if you fairly and reasonably use a short quote and credit it for commentary and criticism, news reporting, teaching, research or parody, you are probably okay. The evaluation includes whether your use adversely affects the market for or value of the work. When in doubt, consult an attorney.