The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in favor of the composer of the 1960s Iron Man theme song, finding material facts in dispute as to whether the song was commissioned as a work for hire. Jack Urbont v. Sony Music Entertainment, Case No. 15-1778-cv (2d Cir., July 29, 2016) (Hall, J).

In 1966, Jack Urbont wrote the theme songs for various characters in the “Marvel Super Heroes” television show, including Iron Man. In 2000, hip hop artist Dennis Coles (known as Ghostface Killah), Sony and Razor Sharp Records produced and released the album “Supreme Clientele” featuring the Iron Man theme song on two tracks, prompting Urbont’s June 2011 copyright infringement lawsuit against Sony, Razor Sharp Records and Ghostface Killah. At trial, the district court found that the defendants had standing to challenge Urbont’s ownership of the copyright under the “work for hire” doctrine, and granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on standing, finding that the Iron Man song was a “work for hire” composed at Marvel’s instance and expense, and that Urbont had not presented evidence of an ownership agreement with Marvel sufficient to overcome the presumption that the work was for hire. Urbont appealed.

Third-Party Standing to Assert Right to Hire Defense

On appeal, Urbont cited the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s 2010 holding in Jules Jordan Video v. 144942 Canada,which rejected third-party standing under the work for hire doctrine. The Second Circuit rejected Urbont’s argument, explaining that in that case both potential owners of the copyright were parties to the lawsuit, neither of which disputed ownership. Here, Marvel was not a party to the suit, and a plaintiff in a copyright infringement suit bears the burden of proving ownership of the copyright when ownership is challenged either by an employer or a third party. Citing Island Software & Computer Serv. v. Microsoft, the Court explained that Sony, a third party to an alleged employer-employee relationship, did have standing to raise the “work for hire” defense to try to refute Urbont’s alleged ownership of the copyright.

The Copyright Act Claim

Under the Copyright Act, an employer is considered an “author” of a copyrightable work in the case of works made for hire. Citing to its 2013 case Marvel Characters v. Kirby,the Second Circuit explained that absent an agreement to the contrary, a work is made for hire when it is “made at the hiring party’s ‘instance and expense,’” i.e.,when the employer induces the creation of the work and has the right to direct and supervise the manner in which the work is carried out.

In reversing, the Second Circuit credited the district court’s reliance on evidence supporting the assertion that the song was a work for hire developed at Marvel’s instance, including that Urbont had not previously been familiar with the Marvel superheroes and had created the work from material given to him by Stan Lee, who had the right to accept or reject his song. However, the Court concluded that Urbont’s evidence that he retained all creative control over the project and that Lee was not permitted to modify the work, coupled with his testimony that he approached Lee, not the other way around, weighed against finding that the work was created at Marvel’s instance.

As for the expense factor, Urbont claimed that he created the song with his own tools and resources, including renting a recording studio, supported his assertion that it was he, not Marvel, who bore the risk of the work’s success. Although the $3,000 payment Urbont received weighed in favor of a finding that the work was created at Marvel’s expense, Urbont’s testimony that he also received royalties undermined such a conclusion. The Second Circuit explained that while a hiring party’s payment of a specific sum in exchange for an independent contractor’s work satisfies the “expense” requirement, the payment of royalties weighs against finding a “work for hire” relationship. The Court thus found that a genuine issue of material fact remained as to whether the Iron Man composition was a work for hire created at Marvel’s instance and expense.

Finally, the Second Circuit found that the district court erred in concluding that Urbont failed to produce evidence to rebut the presumption that Marvel owned the work, noting that on summary judgment, the district court was required to accept Urbont’s testimony in support of his position. The Court reversed and remanded the case back to the district court.