Copyright Law Update — November 28, 2023
By Matt Hersh
The federal court for the Central District of California has found that an author’s contention that a co-collaborator’s work was done “for hire” can trigger the running of the statute of limitations on a claim of authorship. The decision is Crabtree v. Kirkman. I wrote about in yesterday’s IP Law Daily (link to my article, and to the opinion, here).
This is one for the comic fans. The lawsuit targets Robert Kirkman, the celebrated comic book writer and screenwriter who co-created The Walking Dead and Invincible (among many others). He’s been sued before by collaborators, this time by artist and colorist William Crabtreet. The artist wanted a declaration of co-authorship based on his contributions to the Invincible comic series—which, as it happens, had just been picked up by AMC for what turned out to be a two-season run.
The court found that the lawsuit was time-barred. Under caselaw interpreting the Copyright Act (itself somewhat controversial, but that’s another story), a claim of ownership of a copyright accrues at the time the ownership is “repudiated” by a former collaborator. The repudiation here? Back in 2012 the artist and the writer got into a long email argument about whether the artist was being paid the royalties due to him under the contract. The writer mentioned in several emails that he considered the artist’s contribution to be a “work for hire,” which is copyright language for “I own the copyright and you’re only a paid contributor.” The artist should have known he had a dispute right then, the court found.
This strikes me as a little harsh. The email argument was over the calculation of royalties, not ownership. Would the artist have been focused on the “work for hire” references as opposed to the main topic of the argument? The opinion emphasizes the artist’s extensive industry experience and sophistication when it comes to copyright, so that might cabin the opinion a bit.