In a matter of first impression, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s partial grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, vacated a jury verdict and an award of attorneys’ fees, and remanded an action alleging infringement of copyright in two charts depicting organizational change. The Court agreed with other circuits that by registering a derivative work, an author registers all the material included in the derivative work, including any unregistered original works. Enterprise Management Limited, Inc. v. Construx Software Builders Inc., Case No. 22-35345 (9th Cir. July 17, 2023) (Fletcher, Clifton, Ikuta, JJ.)
Mary Lippitt and her company Enterprise Management filed a lawsuit against Steve McConnell and his company Construx for copyright infringement. Lippitt has built a career around advising companies on organizational change. To this end, she created charts and materials, including one titled “Managing Complex Change,” to demonstrate how an organization can fail by missing key transitional elements. According to Lippitt, the “Managing Complex Change” chart was registered with the US Copyright Office in 1987 as part of a presentation called “Transition: Accomplishing Organization Change.” The Copyright Office subsequently destroyed the deposit copy of the registration as part of its routine practice. In 2000, an updated presentation with an updated version of the chart was registered with the Copyright Office. In 2003, the updated chart, “Aligning for Success,” was registered individually.
In 2016, McConnell used Lippitt’s chart in a YouTube video presentation. McConnell titled the chart “Lippitt/Knoster Change Model,” added supplementary information and made stylistic changes. When Lippitt found out that McConnell used her chart, she sent cease-and-desist letters. After McConnell refused to stop using the chart, Lippitt sued.
Following discovery, McConnell moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted in part and denied in part. The district court ruled that Lippitt failed to show that she had registered the “Managing Complex Change” chart because she did not present evidence that the chart was included in the “Transition: Accomplishing Organization Change” material registered in 1987. The district court also denied the motion for summary judgment with respect to Lippitt’s claim that McConnell infringed the “Aligning for Success” chart because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether McConnell had copied it. Based on these rulings, the district court issued a pretrial order precluding Lippitt from basing any argument on her alleged ownership of the copyright in the “Managing Complex Change” chart, including any argument that McConnell infringed the “Aligning for Success” chart by copying elements from the “Managing Complex Change” chart. At trial, the jury returned a verdict for McConnell. The district court subsequently granted McConnell’s motion for attorneys’ fees. Lippitt appealed.
The Ninth Circuit first addressed whether Lippitt raised a genuine issue of material fact that she registered the “Managing Complex Change” chart by including it in the “Transition: Accomplishing Organization Change” materials. The Ninth Circuit explained that the district court’s ruling was partially based on the fact that the copyright for Lippitt’s original chart, “Managing Complex Change,” could not be verified. The Ninth Circuit rejected this reasoning, explaining that Lippitt’s sworn testimony regarding the copyright registration established a genuine issue of material fact. The Court therefore concluded that partial summary judgment in favor of McConnell should not have been granted.
The Ninth Circuit next addressed Lippitt’s argument that she raised a genuine issue of material fact that she registered the elements of the “Managing Complex Change” chart that were included in the “Aligning for Success” chart. The Court concluded that by copyrighting a derivative work, an author registers all the material included in the derivative work, including material that previously appeared in an unregistered original work created by the author. The Court noted that its findings were supported by decisions from other federal circuits that have faced this issue, including the Second, Fourth and Tenth Circuits. The Court determined that under this new framework, Lippitt could bring a copyright infringement action against McConnell for the aspects of the “Managing Complex Change” chart that were included in the “Aligning for Success” chart.
The Ninth Circuit therefore reversed and vacated the district court’s findings and remanded for further consideration.
Hannah Hurley, a summer associate in the San Francisco office, also contributed to this case note.