By Attorney Edward Jesson
Copyright and trademark are two different areas of the law that often intersect with each other. A trademark can be any word, phrase, design, or combination of these things that identifies a business’s goods or services. A copyright is an original work by an author with at least a minimum level of creativity, such as a book, painting, photograph, or song. A recent lawsuit involving SweetWater Brewing Company brings some of the nuances and risks involved in these areas of the law to light.
SweetWater Brewing has been using a trout image in its trademarked logo since 1996 after it paid a friend of the founders, Mr. Fuss, $500 to draw the trout in question. Mr. Fuss is now claiming he owns a copyright to the drawing of the trout, and that there was an “understanding” between himself and SweetWater that the value of his rights to the copyright would grow as the value of SweetWater and its intellectual property grew. When SweetWater was recently bought by another company, Fuss sued SweetWater, claiming that he was owed $31 million dollars for the value of the trout drawing. SweetWater has, in turn, sued Mr. Fuss in federal court requesting a declaration from the court that SweetWater can continue to use its trademarks moving forwards without interference from Mr. Fuss.
Had Mr. Fuss been an employee of SweetWater when he drew the trout, or had a comprehensive agreement been entered into between Mr. Fuss and SweetWater at the beginning, the current litigation could have been avoided, saving all the parties lots of money and time.
Generally speaking, under copyright law, the author of the original work owns the copyright. An exception to this general rule is where the work is made for hire. Thus, if the work was made by an employee in his or her scope of employment, the employer holds the copyright to the work. However, if the individual creating the work is an independent contractor instead, that independent contractor will own the copyright to the work. Therefore, it is very important that companies dealing with independent contractors have them sign agreements whereby the independent contractor assigns the copyrights to the company who is paying them.
The trout image was created long before SweetWater grew into the company it is today, and that spotlights a reason why planning for these eventualities before they become bigger issues is so important, even when a business is in its startup phase.
Should you need assistance with navigating the sometimes complex law surrounding copyright and trademarks, the attorney at Jesson & Rains will be happy to assist.
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