The Plaintiff in UIRC-GSA Holdings, Inc. v. William Blair & Company, 2017 WL 3706625 (N.D.Ill. 2017), sued its investment banker for copyright infringement and professional negligence claiming the banker used the plaintiff’s protected intellectual property – private placement memoranda – to get business from other clients. The parties previously executed an engagement agreement (“Agreement”) which required the banker to facilitate plaintiff’s purchase of real estate through bond issues.
The banker denied infringing plaintiff’s copyrights and counterclaimed for breach of contract, contractual indemnity and tortious interference with contract. Plaintiff moved to dismiss all counterclaims.
In partially granting and denying the (12(b)(6)) motion to dismiss the counterclaims, the Northern District examined the pleading elements for joint-author copyright infringement and tortious interference claims and considered the reach of contractual indemnification provisions.
The counterclaiming banker first asserted that it was a joint owner of the private placement documents and sought an accounting of the plaintiff’s profits generated through use of the materials. Rejecting this argument, the Court stated the Copyright’s definition of a ‘joint work’: “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that the authors’ work be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” 17 U.S.C. 101.
To establish co-authorship, the copyright plaintiff must establish (1) an intent to create a joint work, and (2) independently copyrightable contributions to the material. The intent prong simply means the two (or more) parties intended to work together to create a single product; not that they specifically agreed to be legal co-copyright holders.
To meet the independently copyrightable element (the test’s second prong), the Court noted that “ideas, refinements, and suggestions” are not copyrightable. Instead, the contributed work must possess a modicum of creativity vital to a work’s end product and commercial viability.
Here, while the counter-plaintiff alleged an intent to create a joint work, it failed to allege any specific contributions to the subject private placement documents. Without specifying any copyrightable contributions to the documents, the investment firm failed to satisfy the pleading standards for a joint ownership copyright claim.
The court next considered the banker’s indemnification claim – premised on indemnity (one party promises to compensate another for any loss) language in the Agreement. The provision broadly applied to all claims against the counter-plaintiff arising from or relating to the Agreement. The plaintiff argued that by definition, the indemnity language didn’t apply to direct actions between the parties and only covered third-party claims (claims brought by someone other than plaintiff or defendant).
The Court rejected this argument and found the indemnity language ambiguous. The discrepancy between the Agreement’s expansive indemnification language in one section and other Agreement sections that spoke to notice requirements and duties to defend made it equally plausible the indemnity clause covered both third-party and first-party/direct actions. Because of this textual conflict, the Court held it was premature to dismiss the claim without discovery on the parties’ intent.
The court also sustained the banker’s tortious interference counterclaim against plaintiff’s motion to dismiss. The counter-plaintiff alleged the plaintiff sued and threatened to continue suing one of the counter-plaintiff’s clients (and a competitor of the plaintiff’s) to stop the client from competing with the plaintiff in the bond market. While the act of filing a lawsuit normally won’t support a tortious interference claim, where a defendant threatens litigation to dissuade someone from doing business with a plaintiff can state a tortious interference claim.
Contractual indemnity provisions are construed like any other contract. If the text is clear, it will be enforced as written. In drafting indemnity clauses, the parties should take pains to clarify whether it applies only to third-party claims or if it also covers direct actions between the parties. Otherwise, the parties risk having to pay the opposing litigant’s defense fees.
Filing a lawsuit alone, isn’t enough for a tortious interference claim. However, the threat of litigation to dissuade someone from doing business with another can be sufficient business interference to support such a claim.
Joint ownership in copyrighted materials requires both an intent for joint authorship and copyrightable contributions from each author to merit legal protection.