Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Don't rely on vague promises that you'll be "taken care of"
I had been paying attention to this case out of the Western District of Washington, Moi v. Chihuly Studio, Inc., Cause No. C17-0853RSL (behind paywall), because it raises interesting copyright authorship issues. The case is a lawsuit brought by a person who was one of Chihuly's assistants, who create artwork in Chihuly's name under Chihuly's supervision. The plaintiff worked for Chihuly in this way for fifteen years, until a falling-out between Chihuly and another of the assistants resulted in the deterioration of the plaintiff's relationship with Chihuly as well. The plaintiff filed this lawsuit alleging co-authorship of 285 artworks and requesting compensation for his work on them. You can read more about the lawsuit here.
As I said, I was paying attention to this case for the copyright authorship analysis, which follows the Aalmuhammed test and finds that, because the plaintiff did not exercise control, he is not an author of the artworks, despite his copyrightable contributions to the artworks. The authorship test analysis also considers the lack of contract between the plaintiff and Chihuly as indicating that Chihuly did not intend to share authorship with the plaintiff.
That same lack of contract dooms the plaintiff's attempt to seek compensation for his work. Because there's no contract, the plaintiff's cause of action is promissory estoppel, but Chihuly's promises over the years to compensate plaintiff by keeping track of which artworks plaintiff had contributed to were, in the court's view, too vague to constitute promises that the plaintiff could have relied on. The plaintiff confessed that he had no idea what his eventual compensation might be or when he would receive it, just that he trusted Chihuly to treat him "fairly." Promises forming the basis of promissory estoppel need to be clear and definite, and Chihuly's statements were simply too vague. Considering that plaintiff couldn't even say what they meant, the court refused to enforce them.
This is, once again, a lesson in making sure you have a clear and complete understanding with someone, and not just vague platitudes.