The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed with the trial court regarding the reasonableness of the plaintiff’s legal positions and found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendants, as the prevailing party, attorneys’ fees. The First Circuit determined that the positions advanced by the unsuccessful plaintiffs were not objectively unreasonable. Markham Concepts, Inc. v. Hasbro, Inc., Case Nos. 19-1927; 21-1957; -1958 (1st Cir. June 22, 2023) (Kayatta, Lipez, Thompson, JJ.)
The underlying case involved a copyright action concerning ownership rights to The Game of Life, a board game that has been widely popular since its launch in 1960. The Game of Life became the center of a long-standing dispute between its creators, Reuben Klamer and Bill Markham. Klamer, a toy developer, conceived the initial idea for the game and enlisted Markham to design and create the game prototype. Markham believed he deserved greater recognition for his contribution and felt the royalty he received was unfairly low.
In its previous ruling on the merits, the First Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision in favor of the Hasbro defendants (including Klamer). The Hasbro defendants then sought attorneys’ fees, which the district court denied. Hasbro appealed and moved for appellate attorneys’ fees.
Although both the district court and the First Circuit examined various factors, such as Markham’s motivations and the need for compensation or deterrence, the key factor for both courts in determining whether to award legal fees hinged on the reasonableness of Markham’s litigation arguments.
The merits of the underlying case revolved around the termination right provided by the Copyright Act of 1976 (1976 Act), which allows authors to terminate copyright grants after a certain period and thereby disentangle themselves from agreements made before the true value of their work became apparent. This right does not apply to works made for hire. In this instance, the issue of whether The Game of Life qualified as a work made for hire was determined under the Copyright Act of 1909 (1909 Act), as the game was created long before the 1976 Act took effect. Under the 1909 Act, Markham had to meet the “instance and expense” test, which treats contractors as employees of the party commissioning the work, thereby presuming copyright ownership in the latter. The district court held that The Game of Life was a work for hire because it was created at Klamer’s instance and expense.
Markham’s primary argument relied on the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Reid, which interpreted “employee” for purposes of the work-for-hire test as being defined according to “the general common law of agency.” Although Markham acknowledged that Reid was directed to the 1976 Act, he contended that the logic of Reid should extend to the 1909 Act, thereby nullifying the “instance and expense” test in favor of the general common law of agency.
Four years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Reid, however, the First Circuit applied the “instance and expense” test in Forward to a work covered [...]