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Community for Creative Non-Violence at al. v. Reid

    Brief Fact Summary. Reid (Defendant) created a sculpture on commission from the Community for Creative Non-Violence (Plaintiff), and contended that since he had not been employed by it under common law agency principles, he owned the copyright of the sculpture.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Under common-law agency principles, one who creates an artwork at the directive of another retains copyright upon it unless that other had employed the artist.

    Facts.The Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) (Plaintiff) was a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocacy for the cause of the homeless in the United States.  It negotiated with Reid (Defendant), a sculptor, to create a variation on the classic nativity scene, depicting homeless persons.  Agreement was finally reached and Defendant made the sculpture out of a bronze-like material. Defendant worked in his studio with little direction from CCNV (Plaintiff).  Following the unveiling, Defendant registered a copyright on the work.  Subsequent to this, a disagreement arose between Plaintiff and Defendant who had taken custody of the sculpture, over future exhibition thereof.  Plaintiff filed an action seeking to obtain possession of the work.  The district court held Plaintiff to have the right to exhibit the statue.  The federal circuit of the court of appeals reversed, and the United States Supreme Court granted review.

    Issue.Under common-law agency principles, does one who creates an artwork at the directive of another retains copyright upon it unless that other had employed the artist?

    Held.(Marshall, J.)  Yes.  Under common-law agency principles, one who creates an artwork at the directive of another retains copyright upon it unless that other had employed the artist.  17 U.S.C. § 201 (a) provides that copyright ownership vests initially in the work’s author, something Reid (Defendant) in this case obviously was.  Section 101 of the 1976 Copyright Act creates an exception to this in the case of works created “for hire.â€Â  Section 101(2) mandates copyright vestiture in the case where the author is an independent contractor of another, in specific instances not applicable in this case.  Section 101(1) provides that the work is one created “for hire†if the work is created by an employee within the scope of his employment, and this subsection is the only one that can divest Reid (Defendant) of copyright therein.  “Employee†is not defined in the section.  This being so, the rule comes into play that words used in a statute will be presumed to possess their normal meanings.  Contrary to CCNV’s (Plaintiff) assertions, “employee†is a narrower term than one over whom another exercises a measure of control.  Rather, “employee†has a particular meaning, derived from common-law agency principles, wherein one party performs labor for another under circumstances in which that other exerts substantial control over the work environment on the laborer, as well as the manner of performance.  Numerous factors figure in this equation, such as the level of skill required, tax treatment of the putative employee, the singleness of the assignment, and the source of the instrumentalities of the labor.  In this instance, the work was highly skilled; Reid (Defendant) was retained only for this single assignment, was not treated as an employee for tax purposes, and provided his own work area and tools.  The conclusion is mandated that, under agency principles, Defendant was not an employee of P.  Therefore, the § 101(1) exception to § 201(a) does not apply, and the copyright belongs to Reid (Defendant).  Affirmed.

    Discussion.Sections 101(1) and 101(2) were the result of lengthy debate and compromise in Congress.  Before 19555, any commissioned work belonged to the hiring party.  For the next several years, changes in this rule were proposed many times.  Finally, in 1965 the substantive embodiment of current law was enacted.


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