Dale Chihuly’s luck ran out, and yours probably will, too

by Angela Grayson ([email protected]) 1,463 views 

Most companies spend a lot of time thinking about how to come up with the next big thing, and teams often look externally for new ideas, new products and new markets that can do just that.

With so much at stake, you might be surprised to learn many business leaders would still prefer to do business with “an understanding” rather than put into writing the terms of the arrangement. While doing business with no written agreement may feel like the easiest way to do business, the reality is that without a written agreement outlining the terms and expectations of the parties, companies leave the door wide open for trouble.

So you should ask yourself, do you feel lucky? Well, do you? In the case of the famous glass artist Dale Chihuly, his luck ran out and yours probably will, too.

When the Dale Chihuly works recently came to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, like many of you, I consulted my old friend Google to find out what I could expect from the exhibit. I found much praise for Chihuly through numerous articles describing him as one of the country’s most talented artists; and without a doubt, he is both a commercial and critical success.

But Chihuly’s got a few troubles. Chihuly is involved in an ongoing battle for sole control of his works. One of the artist’s former workers is battling Chihuly for attribution and compensation. Specifically, the worker is suing Chihuly for the worker’s right to compensation under the copyright laws.

The worker is claiming since he heavily assisted in creating some of Chihuly’s most valuable pieces, the worker should be listed as a joint author and compensated accordingly. Because Chihuly did not have a written agreement in place with him saying otherwise, the worker might be on to something. What’s at stake is a portion of Chihuly’s multimillion-dollar empire because he didn’t bother to write it down.

So you might be wondering what has this to do with you and your business. Probably more than you think. Many companies, I’m guessing including yours, run through teamwork. Whether you have a team of people you call contractors, suppliers or good-old-fashioned employees, teams run businesses.

The reality is that to generate new ideas, create new products and enter into new markets, you likely rely on some combination of hired support. If you don’t have a written agreement in place about who should own the data, designs, products, brands and other intellectual property, you might have a big problem. When you don’t write down the terms of the agreement, in the event there is a dispute, you run the risk of having the court decide the issue in a way you might not like, and in a way that will cost you.

So take my advice — if the relationship is important enough to enter into, the terms are important enough to write down. Hammering out issues like who should own the creative output of collaborative arrangements can make all the difference in the future success of your business.
Editor’s note: Angela Grayson is the principal and founder of Precipice IP, a legal firm in Bentonville. She is a registered patent attorney and is admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar. The opinions expressed are those of the author.