Software vendors: Do your employees own your software?

By Richard Stobbe

When an employee claims to own his employer’s software, the analysis will turn to whether that employee was an “author” for the purposes of the Copyright Act, and what the employee “contributed” to the software. This, in turn, raises the question of what constitutes “authorship” of software?  What kinds of contributions are important to the determination of authorship, when it comes to software?

Remember that each copyright-protected work has an author, and the author is considered to be the first owner of copyright. Therefore, the determination of authorship is central to the question of ownership. This interesting question was recently reviewed in the Federal Court decision in Andrews v. McHale and 1625531 Alberta Ltd., 2016 FC 624. Here, Mr. Andrews, an ex-employee claimed to own the flagship software products of the Gemstone Companies, his former employer.  Mr. Andrews went so far as to register copyright in these works in the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.  He then sued his former employer, claiming copyright infringement, among other things.

The former employer defended, claiming that the ex-employee was never an author because his contributions fell far short of what is required to qualify for the purposes of “authorship” under copyright law. The ex-employee argued that he provided the “context and content” by which the software received the data fundamental to its functionality.

The evidence showed that the ex-employee’s involvement with the software included such things as collecting and inputting data; coordination of staff training; assisting with software implementation; making presentations to potential customers and to end-users; collecting feedback from software users; and making suggestions based on user feedback.

The evidence also showed that a software programmer engaged by the employer, Dr. Xu, was the true author of the software. He took suggestions from Mr. Andrews and considered whether to modify the code. Mr. Andrews did not actually author any code, and the court found that none of his contributions amounted to “authorship” for the purposes of copyright.  The court stopped short of deciding that authorship of software requires the writing of actual code; however, the court found that a number of things did not  qualify as “authorship”, including

  • collecting and inputting data;
  • making suggestions based on user feedback;
  • problem-solving related to the software functionality;
  • providing ideas for the integration of reports from one software program with another program;
  • providing guidance on industry-specific content.

To put it another way, these contributions, without more, did not represent an exercise of skill and judgment of the type of necessary to qualify as authorship of software.

The court concluded that: “It is clearly the case in Canadian copyright law that the author of a work entitled to copyright protection is he or she who exercised the skill and judgment which resulted in the expression of the work in material form.” [para. 85]

In the end, the court sided with the employer. The ex-employee’s claims were dismissed.


Field Law acted as counsel to the successful defendant 1625531 Alberta Ltd.

Calgary – 07:00 MST

No comments