Dale Chihuly's Luck Ran Out, And Yours Probably Will Too.

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Most companies spend a lot of time thinking about how to come up with the next big thing, and teams often look externally for new ideas, new products, and new markets that can do just that.  With so much at stake, you might be surprised learn that many business leaders would still prefer to do business with ‘an understanding’ rather than put into writing the terms of the arrangement.  While doing business with no written agreement may feel like the easy, no hassle way to do business, the reality is that without a written agreement outlining the terms and expectations of the parties, companies leave the door wide open for trouble. So you should ask yourself, do you feel lucky?  Well, do you?  In the case of the famous glass artist Dale Chihuly, his luck ran out and yours probably will too.

When the Dale Chihuly works recently came to my city, I consulted my old friend GOOGLE to find out what I could expect from the exhibit.  I found much praise for Mr. Chihuly through numerous articles describing him as one of the country’s most talented artists; and without a doubt, he is both a commercial and critical success. But Chihuly’s got a few troubles too.  Chihuly is involved in an ongoing battle for sole control of his works. One of the artist’s former workers is battling Chihuly for attribution and compensation, specifically, the worker is suing Mr. Chihuly for the worker’s right to compensation under the copyright laws. The worker is claiming that since he heavily assisted in creating some of Chihuly’s most valuable pieces, the worker should be listed as a joint author and compensated accordingly. And…because Mr. Chihuly did not have a written agreement in place with him saying otherwise, the worker might be on to something.  What’s at stake is a portion of Mr. Chihuly’s multi-million dollar empire because he didn’t bother to write it down.

So you might be wondering what has this to do with you and your business?  Probably more than you think.  Many companies, I'm guessing including yours, run through teamwork. Whether you have a team of people you call contractors, suppliers, or good-old-fashioned employees, teams run businesses.  The reality is that to generate new ideas, create new products, and enter into new markets you likely rely on some combination of hired support.  If you don’t have a written agreement in place about who should own the data, designs, products, brands, and other intellectual property, you might have a big problem. When you don’t write down the terms of the agreement, in the event there is a dispute, you run the risk of having the court decide the issue in a way that you might not like, and in a way that will cost you.

So take my advice, if the relationship is important enough to enter into, the terms are important enough to write down.  Hammering out issues like who should own the creative output of collaborative arrangements can make all the difference in the future success of your business.

A version of this article was published in the NWABJ.

The case is styled Moi v. Chihuly Studio, Inc. et. al 2:17-cv-00853 (Washington Western District Court). This case was originally filed in the Superior Court of Washington County, and then subsequently removed to Washington Western District Court.

Special thanks to Danielle Whitmore for contributions to this post.


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About the Author

Angela Grayson is the Principal and Founder of Precipice IP, PLLC.  She practices before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and is a registered patent attorney. Ms. Grayson is licensed to practice before the Mississippi Supreme Court and is admitted to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court Bar. Contact Angela Grayson @ 479.259.2966 or 601.427.4773.