Contracts

Is the Copyright Act Inconsistent with the Law of Employee Invention Assignment Contracts?

Is the Copyright Act Inconsistent with the Law of Employee  Invention Assignment Contracts?

Charles Tait Graves*

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There is a latent conflict between the law of employee invention assignment contracts and the Copyright Act’s work for hire doctrine. Countless employees sign contracts specifying that, in most cases, the employer will own trade secrets and patentable inventions, as well as copyrightable works. When employees create in the workplace, these rules are largely uncontroversial. But when employees create something outside the workplace for a new venture, there can be a conflict between these two areas of intellectual property law. The work for hire doctrine is more favorable to employee-ownership than the law of invention assignment contracts. As a perhaps surprising result, where an employee’s outside-the-workplace creation might constitute both a trade secret and a copyrightable work, these two ownership tests can point in opposite directions. Further, when an employee prevails as to copyright ownership, there are good reasons why that result precludes an employer’s conflicting claim to trade secret ownership in the same work. This friction on the boundaries of two areas of intellectual property law has important policy ramifications for employees who create intellectual property on the side, while planning for their next job. **

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