How to Protect Your Creative Work While Working for Someone Else + The “Aunt Jemima” Lawsuit.


Photo: Creative Commons

As you may have heard, the heirs of Aunt Jemima filed a $2 billion dollar lawsuit against Quaker Oats and Pepsi. The woman, eventually known to America as “Aunt Jemima” was Anna Short Harrington, grandmother of DW Hunter. He filed the class action lawsuit alleging that the companies exploited her image and recipes, and refused to pay “an equitable fair share of royalties.” Allegedly, Harrington was an employee of Quaker Oats, and chosen for the “Aunt Jemima” role because of an original pancake recipe that she created. The company recreated the recipe and sold the pancake mix to stores. The defendants deny that Harrington was ever an employee, while Hunter claims that the company is denying her employment to escape paying royalties.

Let’s stop here (and if you want to read more of the nitty gritty check out the excellent article on For Harriet).

As you know, I use these cases to point out important legal lessons relevant to building your creative business + brand. Here, the lawsuit alleges that Harrington created the pancake recipe, which was ultimately duplicated by the company, resold in stores and that she was never compensated.

It raises the question of… What rights do you have to creative work created while on the job? The black and white answer is that the work created while an employee (not contractor) of a company, that is within the scope of your job duties, belongs to that company. Your compensation exists in the form of your salary (unless you negotiate otherwise). Yes, there are exceptions, but that is the basic rule.

What if you are asked to create work that is not within your job duties, but related?

Say for example, you work for a drug policy organization as an administrative assistant. But, in your off time you are building a business as a writer. You author a great op-ed piece on drug policy, your boss catches wind of it, and asks you to contribute a few articles to the company blog (and writing for the blog is not one of your job duties). You agree. The article goes up under the moniker of “contributor” or “insert company name”.

And, you are damn proud.

You’ve contributed to this great work. You will leave a legacy at this company. Congrats. Now someone from a major publication (and on your job’s email list has seen the article) and offers compensation to reprint it. Who owns the article? Who gets the money? This is a murky situation that happen in real life.

What is the big real law lesson that I want you to take from this?

Get your agreement in writing. If you don’t….

  • You could land in a dispute over ownership rights.
  • You could sell yourself short on royalties or other compensation.
  • You could lose out on the promotional benefits that come with being the awesome creator of the work.

And, when you are launching while working you need all of the extra money and promo that you can get. Have you been asked to “create” outside of your normal job duties at work? How did you handle it?

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