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Who Owns Your Operation’s Custom Software?

One of the benefits of practicing law in a multifaceted law firm is the opportunity to work with lawyers in every area of law. It is always a good learning experience, as you get to explore the often hazy areas of law that dwell at the nexus of multiple practice areas. For example, many communications facilities, and particularly towers, create both environmental and communications law issues. Over the years, we have worked on numerous matters involving RF radiation and bird strike issues at transmission tower sites. Issues like that involve multiple governmental agencies and protocols, and it is great to have a mix of lawyers with the right experience to address the various aspects of such a problem.

I therefore read with interest an Advisory published today by Pillsbury Intellectual Property lawyers Jim Gatto, Cydney Tune, and Jenna Leavitt. While not directed specifically at communications companies, it discusses an IP matter that is certainly relevant to such companies. Like most businesses, those in the communications sector use a lot of off the shelf software. However, communications companies also license a lot of specialized software (e.g., traffic systems for ad placement), and often have to hire coders to adapt the software to their specific needs or to create entirely new software for highly specialized tasks. Sometimes, such entities have new software created because they are not satisfied with what is commercially available.

As a general rule, when you hire a contractor to produce a “work for hire”, the copyright in that work remains with you rather than the contractor. However, in their Advisory with the catchy title Work Made for Hire Doctrine Does Not Generally Apply to Computer Software, the authors note that software does not fall under the types of works considered work for hire. As a result, the copyright in the software would remain with the contractor (even if the parties had agreed it would be a “work for hire”) unless proper contracts are put in place to alter that result. The Advisory goes into detail on how this works and what the implications are, but suffice it to say that many communications companies may be surprised to learn that they don’t hold the copyright in their own software.

This is not just an issue for large companies with complex computer systems and extensive programming. It applies just as readily to a small market radio station that asks a college student to design its website. Without the proper agreements in place, the copyright would remain with the student rather than the radio station. Now might be a good time to consider what software you have had contractors produce for your operation, and whether you know who actually owns it.