Slater v Wimmer – joint ownership of copyright in film productions

The facts in Slater v Wimmer

Mr Wimmer (“the Defendant”) took part in the ‘first’ tandem skydive over Everest in 2008. He wanted to film the skydive so that he could produce two films that would be broadcast – one of such films to be broadcast in Denmark (where he is apparently a celebrity) and the other to be broadcast outside of Denmark. Mr Slater (“the Claimant”) was commissioned to film footage for the broadcast outside of Denmark. He was not paid a salary for this work but agreed to film the event on the basis that his expenses would be paid. The event took place but there was a subsequent dispute as to the ownership of the copyright in the film footage that Mr Slater had sent to Mr Wimmer when Mr Slater discovered that a documentary called “Wimmer Over Everest” had been broadcast in Denmark. Mr Slater believed that Mr Wimmer had used approximately two minutes of his footage in this documentary and sent an invoice for £3,000 to Mr Wimmer for use of the footage. Mr Wimmer in return claimed (principally) that he owned the intellectual property rights to the footage. A claim was subsequently issued in the Patents County Court by the Claimant and Mr Wimmer counter-claimed on a variety of points.

The law relating to Slater v Wimmer

This is essentially a dispute relating to ownership of copyright. Mr Wimmer believed that he had commissioned Mr Slater to film the footage on the basis that Mr Wimmer would own all the IP rights. Mr Slater believed otherwise. Two issues therefore had to be addressed:

  1. Was there a contract between Mr Slater and Mr Wimmer and, if so, what were the terms of the contract?
  2. Which person(s) were the principal directors and/or producers of the film footage? (under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988)

The Patent County Court’s decision in Slater v Wimmer

Judge Birss QC considered that there was a contract for services between Mr Slater and Mr Wimmer. This was not an employee – employer relationship but Mr Wimmer had commissioned Mr Slater’s services as a cameraman for the consideration of paying his expenses. Judge Birss further found that there were no express terms in the contract relating to the ownership of the IP rights of the footage. The implied terms would therefore determine ownership.

Judge Birss considered that under s.10(1A) of the CPDA 1988 that both Mr Wimmer and Mr Slater were joint owners of the film footage – Mr Wimmer being the “producer” and Mr Slater the “principal director”. Judge Birss further found that there were no implied terms in the contact for services relating to the ownership of copyright as the situation was covered under the CPDA 1988 and Mr Slater had not been paid to film the footage – only his expenses were covered. He rejected arguments from the Defendant’s representatives that the absence of implied terms would make the exploitation of IP rights commercially unfeasible and that Mr Wimmer would lack rights against third parties. Both parties therefore jointly owned copyright to the footage in question.

Our thoughts

This case emphasises how quickly business relationships can deteriorate and how important it is to reach express written agreement regarding crucial issues such as ownership of intellectual property rights in such circumstances. Ensure that meetings are recorded in an appropriate medium and that there is no confusion as to the terms of an agreement.