At a recent WNYLRC webinar, we discussed the ownership of materials generated by library staff. Who owns the massive amount of original work generated by an active, engaged library staff?
The answer is: it depends.
Let’s start with the fundamentals:
FIRST: Copyright vests the moment an original work is fixed in a “tangible medium of expression.” Trademark is established through either registration or use on the marketplace. Patent can protect useful articles and unique business operations. Trade secret law can protect confidential information that gives your institution a unique edge. What does this mean? It means that the e-mails, presentations, displays, unique business solutions, archive collections and other valuable work-product generated by library staff are all assets that can be owned.
SECOND: Unless there is a contract, policy, or other express documentation to the contrary, an employer owns the copyright to any work produced by an employee as part of the scope of their employment (this is one of the reasons why it is always important to ensure staff have updated job descriptions). For trademark, patent, and trade secret, similar rules may apply. Be warned…if not set out clearly, this “express documentation” can take many forms: it can be buried in a union contract, can be inferred from a hire letter, or might even be derived from a habitual business practice. For both the library and its employees, there should be a clear policy.
THIRD: Not only copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret law governs the control of employee work-product. The ethics of the profession may influence ownership. If your library serves a particular industry, like education or healthcare, the work-product is controlled by privacy regulations. It is important that the initial ownership arrangement between the library and its employees consider the other terms that may govern the work product, and it is critical that any policy reinforce the obligation to safeguard certain information.
So how does a library set up to ensure it owns the valuable work product it pays its staff to produce, but doesn’t encroach on the employees’ right to generate their own intellectual property when not at work? As more and more people “work from home,” use their own laptops, and may even compose work product on their cell phones, it couldn’t be more important to observe the following:
A carefully considered policy on employee work product. This policy should be harmonized with the ethics and mission of the institution, its policy on employee use of technology, and its regulatory compliance obligations. This does not have to be extensive; just a few clear, concise paragraphs in the Employee Handbook.
Clear hire letters and routinely updated job descriptions. Remember, in order to determine if something was created as part of an employee’s “scope of employment,” both parties need a clear notion of what that employment is!
Routine copyright, trademark, and patent registration of critical employee-generated IP. If your archives are known for a particularly good compilation of old photographs, for example, consider registration of the compilation with the Library of Congress (even if the images already have their own unique registration). If you gave the compilation a unique name, consider trademarking it. If your library developed a unique way to search the archive, explore a patent (before disclosing it to any other party!).
And if the asset is not only employer-owned, but critical, make the necessary archive and recovery copies, and make sure that back-up is controlled by the employer (locked cabinet, separate hard drive, employer-licensed cloud service).
What can an employee or institution do if there is confusion regarding an employee-generated asset? The best option is to promptly consult a lawyer. Remember…what people do and say during the initial phase of a dispute can later become evidence, while timely input can hopefully avoid unnecessary debate, and find a “win-win.” That said, there is no replacement for clear hire terms, current policies, and routine IP asset management. Staff and the great work they generate are critical assets of libraries and archives, so clarity is definitely worth the effort!