Are My Ideas Mine Again?
March 20, 2010 3:55 PM   Subscribe

How long do intellectual-property clauses typically last?

About ten years ago, I worked with a small television production company. One of the thing I did was help develop show proposals -- some my own ideas, but most my boss's ideas. None of the 30+ ideas I worked on ever took off. Then when I left the company two years later, I had to sign a standard document that the ideas I worked on while working with the company were the intellectual property of the company; I signed it.

Now, however, more than ten years have passed, and I can't help think that one of those ideas could be pitched now, with greater success. But since I signed that document, am I allowed to do so? I don't have any of the original materials we used to promote the show idea, and would have to start from scratch when it comes to writing the proposal.

There is one complication: I didn't sign an intellectual property document released by the production company proper, but rather, for its parent company. The television company no longer exists; however, the parent company (not a media company) does, and is indeed very active.

So. Is it safe to assume that that statute of limitations has expired? Or if I want to pursue this, should I make it "different" enough that I don't get sued?
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Law & Government (13 answers total)

EC, you need to talk to a lawyer with experience in copyright law and have him or her look at the actual contract as well as talk with you about various aspects of your work at that company. The stuff you helped created might be a work for hire under the contract, you may have a multiple author situation, the company on dissolution or acquisition may have assigned its IP to someone else, etc.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 4:22 PM on March 20, 2010

I am not the OP's attorney. This is not legal advice.

Is it safe to assume that that statute of limitations has expired?

I would urge you to speak with a lawyer. This page can be a helpful resource.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:30 PM on March 20, 2010

You don't say, so I assume you don't have that document to refer to. I'd imagine it's very general "we own everything you ever thought about here" kind of wording rather than about specific projects rather than specific copyright transfers.

For specific transfers of works you did at that place you can look at this circular but it won't be something you'll like. It's 28+ years depending on when it was created. The circular only says that the term extended to 35 years under "the present law" which might mean the Bono changes or it might mean some other tweak. Regardless, you're still within that window so it doesn't much matter.

For something that was never 'fixed' because you were just spitballing ideas around over the conference table ("I'm thinking some dude who fights crime while wearing his underwear on the outside" "Brilliant!") you're talking about something that falls more in the employment law kind of area. I suspect that's more the lawyer specialty you're concerned with.
posted by phearlez at 4:57 PM on March 20, 2010

I am an IP attorney. But you know what's coming; not your lawyer - not legal advice.

It's very likely that the parent company you signed the release for owns any and all IP you came up with during your time working for the production co. I would talk to a lawyer before moving forward.

Issues that are important that you might want to discuss with them. Is your release a transfer or assignment of rights? Because if its a transfer it might expire and revert back to you under certain circumstances, but probably not within the 10 years that have already passed.

Was the release an agreement that the work was a work-for-hire? If it was work-for-hire they just own it. There's no assignment or transfer to expire. They will own it until the copyright expires.

All of this depend on a lot of different things and on the exact wording of the release you signed. You need to talk to a qualified IP attorney to figure this out. Since I see you're in NYC, you can probably get free or cheap advice from the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts Its a great organization and they're there to help.

Your best bet might be to have an attorney check with the parent company and see if they would be willing to sell you back the rights for the projects you worked on. They might be willing to sell it pretty cheaply, since they're not using it.
posted by Arbac at 5:36 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's entirely a function of how your contract was written. But I would be very surprised if there was any kind of time-out. Nearly always the contract is written so that their rights are eternal and your rights are permanently zero.

By the way, there is no such thing as a statute of limitations when it comes to this kind of thing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:52 PM on March 20, 2010

Interesting question.
I wonder, if the OP were to take an idea she had while working in the previous company and make something of it now, what would be the likelihood that the parent company would even notice?
posted by doost at 4:15 AM on March 21, 2010

I don't have the original document, unfortunately. Damn.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:54 AM on March 21, 2010

Here is some information for writers on rights in creative works. Copyright does not cover ideas, but expressions of ideas. Nevertheless there is a specialized body of copyright law with regard to ideas for tv shows, movies etc. You will want to employ an attorney specialized in this area to assess how much of your idea you can use given that you signed away the rights.
posted by caddis at 7:21 AM on March 21, 2010

Something to be aware of, which is a common source of confusion, is that intellectual property still requires a fixed form. So they don't actually own the ideas per se, but rather the way they were pitched. As those pitches were unsuccessful, and it's been ten years, you'd likely pitch them differently now.
posted by klangklangston at 8:18 AM on March 21, 2010

Caddis, this doesn't have anything to do with copyright. The kind of contract the OP signed emphatically can cover ideas, and they usually do.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:45 PM on March 22, 2010

It has much to do with copyright. You can only protect a story idea through copyright and trade secret. Most employment agreements cover both aspects. Any attempt to extend the rights beyond the copyrights would be copyright misuse and would put the copyright protection at risk
posted by caddis at 8:03 AM on March 24, 2010

The disposition of any copyrights that the poster might have held and transferred are not the end-all be-all of what kind of additional contracts s/he may have signed while in this employment. Here's a sample paragraph out of a work for hire agreement:

5. WORK PRODUCT OWNERSHIP. Any copyrightable works, ideas, discoveries,
inventions, patents, products, or other information (collectively, the "Work Product") developed
in whole or in part by Service Provider in connection with the Services shall be the exclusive
property of Client. Upon request, Service Provider shall sign all documents necessary to confirm
or perfect the exclusive ownership of Client to the Work Product.

Note that it goes far beyond simple copyright assignment. So while it may have some to do with copyright and copyright issues may be involved, it may and likely does go far beyond copyright issues and into other minutia.
posted by phearlez at 8:08 PM on March 25, 2010

Note that it goes far beyond simple copyright assignment

True. It includes trade secrets and patent rights as well, but nothing more. These types of agreements often include a laundry list of things so that there is clarity that they are included in the scope of the trade secret, patent and copyright protections, but their inclusion does not broaden the scope beyond trade secret, patent and copyright.
posted by caddis at 11:29 AM on March 26, 2010

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