An innocent error in applying for copyright registration is not fatal to the owner’s copyright infringement claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals (7th Cir.) recently confirmed. In its May 21, 2003 opinion in Billy-Bob Teeth, Inc. v. Novelty, Inc., the Court held that Billy-Bob was the valid owner of the copyright in certain designs for joke false teeth, and that Novelty had infringed Billy-Bob’s copyright. The ruling overturned an Illinois District Court’s decision that Billy-Bob had no ownership interest in the copyright due to an improper claim of “work for hire” in the copyright registration. At trial, Novelty had successfully argued that the teeth design could not have been a work for hire notionally-authored by Billy-Bob in 1995, since the company was not incorporated until 1996. The appeals court found that, although the work for hire statement was an error on the registration, it was not fatal to Billy-Bob’s case, since the evidence showed that copyright had been verbally assigned to Billy-Bob by the author, and Billy-Bob was the legal owner at the time of the infringement. Novelty tried to challenge this verbal assignment under section 204 of the Copyright Act, a provision which requires all transfers to be in writing. However, the Court of Appeals refused to allow this argument, finding that Novelty, as a third party to the assignment, did not have standing to attack the assignment on the basis of this formality. In any case, the author had also signed a confirmatory assignment before trial to transfer the copyright to Billy-Bob nunc pro tunc, which adequately met the requirements of section 204.
A copy of the appeals decision is available at:
Summary by: Jennifer Jannuska