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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A Typology of Authorship in Highly Collaborative Works

To paraphrase Anna Karenina for the kajillionth time, all copyright scholars think Garcia was wrongly decided,* but every copyright scholar thinks so in their own way. When the Ninth Circuit held a couple months back that an actress has a “copyright interest” in the film in which she briefly performed, the (understandably) apoplectic reaction was as entertaining as the decision was mysterious. I’m on board with the general reception that the Garcia opinion was the copyright equivalent of sitting on a whoopee cushion, so instead of beating that long-deceased equine, I will instead explore a related issue raised by the case.

Copyright’s notion of authorship works great when we’re dealing with the classic, solo Romantic author: Some genius artist sits alone in a room painting a masterpiece all of her own invention, and—boom—thanks to section 201(a), the copyright in that work vests in her, making her the author of the work for the duration of the copyright, and the owner of the work until she transfers her copyright.

But a much harder question arises when we complicate the story of authorship to include multiple collaborators on a project. The solo writer or painter is clearly the author of their work, but when we imagine a fashion photograph involving a photographer, model, makeup people, and numerous technicians, the notion of authorship becomes far murkier. This is, then, one of the major issues raised by Garcia: how do we allocate authorship when many people make expressive contributions to a final creative product?

So this post seeks neither to praise Garcia (obv.) or to bury it (that’s been done amply and adequately already). Instead, below the fold, I want to develop a typology of the different kinds of creative contributions people make to works, and how these different kinds of contributions might give rise to what we call copyright authorship. Importantly, this is not a normative claim that all of the contributors in these classes are or should be entitled to joint or freestanding copyrights, but merely to organize and make sense of the different kinds of contributions to works that could plausibly be understood to be the result of creative authorship.

First is what I will call visionaries. This is a grandiose term because I can’t at present think of a less pretentious one, but I mean it simply to refer to the person who is in charge of the overall vision of a highly collaborative work of authorship—the director of a film, the producer of a sound recording, and perhaps the photographer of a sophisticated, artistic photograph (hence there will be no rehashing of the Ellen’s-selfie debacle here).

The visionary comes closest to the person who fits the Romantic notion of authorship of a work. The director of a film, for example, typically has the initial vision of and the most creative control over the content of the entire film. Hence courts have tended to conclude that (presuming we are to regard works as unitary rather than comprised of many different subworks by many different artists, which Garcia surprisingly called into question) the person exercising this visionary function is the presumptive author of a highly collaborative work. E.g., Burrow-Giles v. Sarony (U.S. 1884) (holding that Napoleon Sarony was the author of a famous photograph of Oscar Wilde because Sarony determined the setting, lighting, subject placement, and other features of the work).

Second, consider performers—actors in films, models in photographs, singers and session musicians in sound recordings). It was the Garcia court’s willingness to consider performers as authors of works that was so jarring to settled understandings of copyright (and also to the Copyright Office, which had rejected Garcia’s application for a copyright in the same performance that the Ninth Circuit held was protected).

I share the intuition that something seems very wrong about extending Garcia a copyright in her performance. But what complicates this is that I don’t have that same intuition in the context of sound recordings.** It does not seem obviously wrong to me that singers and musicians should not be the owner of the sound recordings they create at a studio. Their performances vivify the otherwise highly abstracted musical works on which they are based, and comprise the substance of the recorded sounds themselves. The seeming plausibility that musical performers might have a copyright in their sound recordings makes it a little harder to reject out of hand the notion that dramatic performers can never have a copyright interest in the audiovisual works to which they contribute.

The third category is the technician. This is the person who actually causes sounds or images to be fixed in the tangible medium of expression that is required for federal copyrightability—the cinematographer in film, the sound engineer in a recording studio, or the person taking a photograph (modernly, this is usually the visionary as well, but this was not always the case—Napoleon Sarony, for example, never touched a camera in his life).

A colleague once pointed out to me a formalist argument for why such technicians should have authorial status. The work in photographic works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings is pretty much indistinguishable from the fixation. So for a sound recording, the work is the actual sounds fixed in the studio’s digital audio tape. By this logic, then, the person who is actually creating the work is the person who is actually fixing the sounds (or in the case of other works, fixing the images).

This argument works well when the technician also makes crucial creative decisions about the work. The best example is the photographer. Eddie Adams or Manny Garcia (no relation to the “Innocence of Muslims” actress—as far as I know, anyway) are both the visionaries who imagine their photos (to the extent possible with photojournalism, which typically requires spontaneous creation) as well as the technicians who execute the fixation of their creative vision. Sound recordings are a harder case. Some sound engineers make creative contributions, while others act at the direction and discretion of producers. And the case where this makes the least sense is the cinematographer, who exercises great technical skill to operate the camera but who typically acts in the service of realizing the director’s creative vision (again, there are exceptions—Spielberg, for example, takes a relatively greater technical role in his films than most Hollywood directors).

The fourth and final category is the writer. This category will be populated only where the highly collaborative work is derivative of some other work—a screenplay, a musical work—so would exclude works like a painstakingly posed photograph. And it is beyond obvious that in order to create the film or sound recording at all, the creator of the derivative must get a license, either through bargaining (in the case of a film) or through section 115’s compulsory license provisions (in the case of a sound recording). But the fact of acquiring a license does not diminish the central role that the writer’s contribution plays in the creative impact of films or sound recordings. It just means that here, unlike with other categories, the copyright ownership issues are reasonably well demarcated and understood.

These categories—not meant to be exhaustive, but just illustrative—comprise four different ways that one might contribute to a highly collaborative work in a creative way that approaches copyright’s notion of authorship. One could contribute an overall guiding vision, or provide an original and electric performance, or supply the work’s underlying narrative structure, or contribute technical expertise in a thoughtful way that contributed to the aesthetic success of the final creative product.

The problem with acknowledging this multiplicity of forms of creative contribution for the purposes of law, though, is that copyright is ill-suited to manage the descriptive reality of authorship in highly collaborative works.*** This may suggest that Garcia is flawed pragmatically more than doctrinally. There may be some plausibility to the idea that a performance could be copyrighted, but the practical implications of going down that rabbit hole are just too messy to contemplate. So while the Romantic notion of locating authorship of all works in a single individual—visionary, technician, or whoever—may not square with the need to have a manageable notion of authorship (and, related, ownership). Hence this may be one rare instance in which Romanticism and pragmatism are on the same page.

*In all fairness, there were apparently a handful of Garcia supporters (other than members of industry groups benefited by the decision’s outcome).

**Based solely on casual empiricism, I think others share this intuition. I always ask my class (before we get into what law actually says about these things) who they think the author of a movie should be, and most people answer "director." But when I ask them who the author of a sound recording should be, the most common instinctive response is "the vocalist." No love for the producer, I guess.

***This may be a problem endemic to all property, actually. Real property law does ok with the idea of limited co-ownership, but once the owners of a given plot become too numerous, management problems and devaluation kick in. This is a particular problem for familial or tribal holdings over time.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on April 9, 2014 at 09:58 AM in Culture, Intellectual Property, Property | Permalink

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