A ruling in American Plastic Equipment, Inc. v. Toytrackerz, LLC, 2009 WL 902422 (D. Kan. 2009) reminds us that under Section 204 of the Copyright Act, any transfer of copyright must be in a written instrument by the owner.
The case involved copyright in eleven Marx action figures that had, after a number of transfers and a “repossession” found their way into the hands of the plaintiff.
The Defendants' summary judgment motion was granted, with the judge finding that the chain of title was unclear, and that the mere statement in a “bill of sale” that “The Property has been repossessed by the Seller from Louis Marx & Co. or its affiliated companies in the exercise of its rights under a security agreement.” was insufficient (absent introduction of actual evidence of ownership of copyrights) to support the plaintiff's infringement claims.
The ruling doesn't specify any particulars for a writing that would satisfy the terms of section 204, stating that it need only be one-line, but must clearly express the agreement to transfer the copyright in question.
This does, however, raise questions about court-ordered transfers of assets, such as in foreclosures, bankruptcies, etc.
This is a Kansas District Court ruling, so an appeal may be forthcoming.
(Hat tip to: Copyright Law Blog: Exclusive Rights.)