Mattel Inc. has won summary judgment in a case involving a former freelance writer of “He-Man” mini comics.
In 1981, Mattel engaged Donald Glut to create the backstory for Mattel’s “Masters of the Universe” toy characters, including “He-Man.” Ultimately, Glut prepared a written treatment and four “mini-comics” that related and expanded upon the backstory.
In 2013, Glut’s lawyer notified Mattel that Glut owned the copyright in the treatment and that Glut intended to terminate Mattel’s “implied license” to it. Mattel then preemptively sued Glut seeking a judicial declaration that Mattel, not Glut, owned the copyright in the treatment and that Glut waited too long to assert his alleged rights.
The gist of Mattel’s suit was that Glut was hired to create the treatment under a “work-for-hire” contract and that he was barred from claiming otherwise more than 30 years after the fact.
According to the US Copyright Office, a “work-for-hire” is:
a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or a work specially ordered or commissioned in certain specified circumstances. When a work qualifies as a work made for hire, the employer, or commissioning party, is considered to be the author.
Mattel also asserted that Glut’s work on the treatment gave him no rights in the underlying intellectual property associated with the toys.
Glut claimed that he had licensed the Masters of the Universe rights to Mattel and that he intended to terminate his “license” in 2016.
Mattel asserted that Glut’s claim was barred by the doctrine of laches, a defense that prevents plaintiffs from “sleeping” on their rights to the detriment of defendants.
During the period from 1981 until Glut began to assert his claim, Mattel said that it had developed the toy franchise based on the assumption that Glut had no intellectual property ownership interests to assert.
Glut had filed his own summary judgment motion in November, claiming that Mattel was unable to produce the original work-for-hire documents. This motion was mooted by the court’s ruling.
Mattel has licensed the rights to the Master of the Universe toy line to Sony Pictures, which is reportedly planning to create a new film franchise based on the characters.
If you are concerned about whether your company’s agreements with freelancers are sufficient to protect your interests in their work, contact our office to arrange a free initial consultation with one of our copyright attorneys.
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Photo Attribution: “He-Man cosplayer at the 2012 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona.” By Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY 2.0.