Copyright ownership sales are generally controlled by ordinary state contract laws, but there are some limits when dealing with an agent of the copyright owner. In the recent case of MVP Entertainment v. Frost, a film producer offered to purchase the movie rights to author Mark Frost’s book, “The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever.” The purchaser dealt with the attorney for the owner. In response to an email by the purchaser offering purchase terms, the attorney replied by email, “done . . . thanks!” Under many state laws that might have been enough to transfer ownership, but not so under copyright law.
The Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 204(a)) says that “transfer of copyright ownership . . . is not valid unless . . . a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.” An attorney is an agent, so the attorney’s email saying the deal is “done” should be enough, shouldn’t it? Not quite, said the California Court of Appeal in MVP, because the owner disputed that his attorney had the owner’s actual authority to sell the copyright. In other words, the attorney was not the “owner’s duly authorized agent” for that purpose.
But the purchaser claimed it was led to believe that the attorney had authority, which is a theory known as “ostensible agency.” Under California law, a property owner can be bound by the acts of another person (the “ostensible agent”) whom the owner “intentionally or by want of ordinary care, causes or allows” another (the purchaser) to believe had the owner’s authority. Contracts can be created by “ostensible agents” in many circumstances. But the MVP decision held that copyright transfers cannot be done by “ostensible agents.” Copyright law requires that the purchaser deal directly with the owner, or with an agent expressly and “duly authorized” to act on behalf of the owner, with the goal that copyright interests are not inadvertently given and there is no uncertainty about what rights were transferred.
The takeaway from MVP is, when buying copyrights it’s wise to get the owner’s signature. CK&E lawyers routinely guide clients through transfers and licensing of intellectual property including copyrights, trademarks and patent rights. As well, when a client’s rights in intellectual property are threatened, CK&E lawyers respond with effective enforcement.