Another Look at Ownership of IP Rights in Employees’ Work

By Brian Whitehead, Partner

A very unusual judgment was handed down earlier this month by the Court of Appeal in Gray v Mulberry Company. It was an appeal from an employment tribunal decision, concerning employee rights in intellectual property. The appellant had been employed by the design company, Mulberry, which produces luxury leather handbags and other items. She refused to sign its standard side-agreement concerning ownership of IP rights, and was dismissed as a result. She brought a claim for discrimination (direct and indirect) on the grounds of belief. The belief in question was “the statutory human or moral right to own the copyright and moral rights of her own creative works and output.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, her claim was dismissed by the Employment Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal and, now, by the Court of Appeal. Indeed, we are somewhat surprised that the Court of Appeal gave permission for a second appeal in this action. The ownership of IP rights in employees’ work is long-settled in law, and governed by various statutes, and it would have been an extraordinary result had the Court of Appeal held there to be a right, arising under the Equality Act 2010, for an employee to own the rights in his/her work created in the course of employment. Indeed, we wonder whether such a finding would have resulted in a deluge of other claims for discrimination on the grounds of belief – perhaps the “statutory human or moral right to stay in bed and not bother going to work”!