"World of Warcraft" Wins Appeal over Use of Ex-Employee's Voice in Game

Game over…unless the plaintiff wants to take it to the Supreme Court. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling concerning a highly contested legal battle over an ex-employee who claimed copyright in voice-over work she did in World of Warcraft.
From 2005 to 2006, Amanda Lewis was assigned to work as a “game master” for Blizzard, responsible for helping out customers with service issues and settling in game disputes like players using foul language. During this time, Blizzard permitted employees to audition as voice-over talent for the video game. Lewis won the part of “Baby Murloc” but was surprised when her voice showed up in the video game and she sued for copyright infringement.
The general rule is that the owner of a copyright is the person that created the work but there is an exception under the work-for-hire doctrine. During the scope of their employment, the employer owns all rights to things created by an employee when they are “on the clock”. For example, if you work at a company that makes clothing, the company owns the designs you create, not you individually. Here, the lower court, in granting summary judgment for Blizzard, held that it was detailed as part of a game master’s duties to “assist with the creation of content” and since this is what Lewis did, the Court held that her voice-over work was a work-for-hire as prescribed by the Copyright Act.
The court awarded Blizzard a little more than $30,000 in fees and costs mainly due to Lewis’ statements about the case. Lewis threatened Blizzard with some bad PR and demanded $1.2 million to settle the case when non-union voice-over work is usually paid $400. The judge found this position objectively unreasonable and awarded Blizzard its reasonable costs including attorneys’ fees.
Lewis still wasn’t ready to give up and she appealed the decision. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on the matter. Lewis, through her attorneys, argued that doing voice-over work was not part of her normal duties as game master and the lower court misinterpreted the employee handbook. Blizzard countered saying Lewis’s job description required her to assist with the creation of content including voice-overs even if they are a one time thing. Therefore, since she was only doing her job, Blizzard owns the recording of its employees’ voice.
On December 18th, the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling affirming the appeal holding that this work was done in the course of the employee’s job and therefore a work-for-hire. The Court stated that Lewis was hired to assist in the creation of content for the game and by providing the voice of the baby murlock, this is exactly what she did. Blizzard is therefore the owner of all copyrights to the voice work done as the employer. Lewis can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court if she wishes but no chance that the high court will ever hear this relatively simple dispute.
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