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Employment Law Case Update: Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd

Sep 13, 2018

When an employee designs something in the course of their employment, generally the intellectual property rights in that design are owned by the employer. Often employers require their employees to sign an agreement making it clear and unambiguous who holds the rights.

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination in the workplace because of a person’s religion or belief. Belief refers to any religious or philosophical belief, including a lack of a belief. There is no set definition of religion in the Act, but it’s clear that it also covers atheism and those who don’t practise any religion.

The belief need not be religious; philosophical beliefs are also protected, provided they’re genuinely held. A philosophical belief cannot be merely an opinion or point of view, and must have a weighty and substantial impact on human life and behaviour; should be clear, logical, convincing, serious, important, and worthy of respect in a democratic society. It should also be compatible with human dignity and not in conflict with others’ fundamental rights. For example, environmentalism is protected – but supporting a football team is not.

But would protecting the ownership of a designer’s artistic creation be categorised as a philosophical belief?

Ms Gray, joined handbag designer Mulberry in 2015, and was asked to enter into an intellectual property agreement assigning her intellectual property rights to all works and designs originated, conceived, written, or made by her in the course of her employment to Mulberry.

Ms Gray refused to sign. She was concerned this could interfere with her own work as a writer and filmmaker. Mulberry attempted to amend the agreement, making clear what was covered, but after several months, the parties could not agree on the wording and Ms Gray still refused to sign. Mulberry then dismissed her for refusing to comply with the conditions of her employment. At no point did Ms Gray state that she had a philosophical belief in protecting the ownership of her artistic creations.

Ms Gray brought a claim to the Employment Tribunal for direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of her belief in “the statutory human or moral right to own the copyright and moral rights of her own creative works and output.” The case eventually reached the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), which found in Mulberry’s favour. Among other things, the EAT considered whether the right to own the copyright over creative works would constitute a philosophical belief.

Ms Gray had not made Mulberry aware of her belief. The only reason she gave for refusing to sign was her concern about losing control of the intellectual property rights to her private work – which could be described as purely commercial and designed to protect her own private interests. This did not amount to an expression of her belief, and there was no suggestion that she was motivated by a philosophical belief.

The EAT also considered if the requirement to sign the agreement put Ms Gray or others who shared her belief at a particular disadvantage. They concluded that for indirect discrimination to be established, it has to be possible to make general statements about a group so that an employer can appreciate that a provision might have an adverse impact on that group. In this case, Ms Gray was the only person allegedly adhering to that philosophical belief, so was not able to establish any group disadvantage.

The EAT explained that the amended agreement went no further than necessary to protect Mulberry’s legitimate interests, and was a proportionate measure for Mulberry to take.

This article is from our weekly Employment Law Newsletter published on 13/09/2018.  If you would like to receive this newsletter directly and be kept up to date with recent cases and Employment Law news, email events@warnergoodman.co.uk.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.