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Erickson v. Trinity Theatre, Inc. - 13 F.3d 1061 (7th Cir. 1994)


A "joint work" is defined as a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.


Plaintiff Karen Erickson was one of the founders of Defendant Trinity Theatre d/b/a/ Trinity Square Ensemble (Trinity). Between 1981 and January 1991, Erickson served Trinity in various capacities: as playwright, artistic director, actress, play director, business manager, and member of the board of directors. The subject of the present case were the rights to three plays: (i) Much Ado About Shakespeare (Much Ado); The Theatre Time Machine (Time Machine); and Prairie Voices: Tales from Illinois (Prairie Voices). As regards the script Much Ado, Erickson, together with others, made decisions as to what would be included in the texts. Moreover, Erickson received a copyright registration for Time Machine in 1988. Erickson then started producing the play independently of Trinity in 1984 with two other actors, Paddy Lynn and Will Clinger. Erickson claimed that she worked to develop the scenes alone; however, the evidence shows that the actors were involved in the development of the melodrama and improvisational scenes. In 1990, Erickson developed Prairie Voices, a play based on tales from Illinois history. As with Time Machine, Erickson worked with the actors in the improvisational format; however, Erickson controlled what eventually was put in the script.

In 1987, Trinity began paying Erickson royalties for its performances of her plays. On July 5, 1988, Ms. Erickson entered into a two-year licensing agreement with Trinity that designated her as a "playwright" entitling her to royalties for performances of two of her plays, Much Ado and Time Machine. Erickson was also subject to an actors’ agreement with Trinity, wherein, it was stipulated that Erickson agreed that Trinity reserved the right to any recording, audio, video, or both of the Production. Eventually, Erickson left Trinity in January 1991. Shortly thereafter, she applied for and was issued copyright registration for Much Ado and Prairie Voices. Erickson's attorneys wrote Trinity a letter demanding that Trinity discontinue performing the plaintiff's plays. Trinity refused to comply with the request.

Erickson then filed a 17-count complaint against Trinity, members of Trinity's management, and individual Trinity actors seeking injunctive and legal relief in which she alleged copyright infringement, unfair competition, and other related tortious activity. The magistrate judge recommended enjoining the performance of the plays but not the use of the videotapes. Both parties filed objections. The district court sustained Erickson's objections to the portions of the recommendation addressing the videotapes but denied Trinity's objections to the portion of the recommendation addressing performance of the plays. Accordingly, the district court enjoined Trinity from using either the plays or the videotapes. Trinity appealed, contending that several of its members were joint authors of the three plays with Ms. Erickson; that these joint authors gave Trinity the right to produce the plays, and therefore that Trinity and its member joint authors share rights to the plays and videotapes.


Did the district court err in granting a preliminary injunction against Trinity, notwithstanding the alleged joint authorship of the subject works?




The Court affirmed the issuance of the preliminary injunction, rejecting the "de minimis," or collaboration alone test, and applied the Goldstein "copyrightable subject matter" test. The Court determined that other members of defendant theatre company were not joint authors of the works in question because the parties did not intend to be joint authors at the time the work was created and contributions to the works were not independently copyrightable. According to the Court, actors making suggestions, ideas, and refinements standing alone were not independently copyrightable materials, and therefore, these other individuals did not qualify as authors of a joint work.

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