The Court of Appeal in Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Limited dismissed an employee’s claim for discrimination in respect of her belief in the statutory and moral rights to own the copyright to her own creative works. Leah Caprani considers the implications of the Court’s decision for employers.
The Claimant, Ms Gray, was employed as a Market Support Assistant by the Respondent luxury fashion label, Mulberry. All Mulberry employees are required to sign a standard Copyright Agreement upon commencing employment, thereby assigning any intellectual property created in connection with their employment to the company. Although a condition of employment, Ms Gray refused to sign the agreement due to her mistaken belief that such obligations would extend to her personal creations as a writer and film-maker. Mulberry later amended the wording of agreement to specifically exclude such activities, but Ms Gray still refused to sign and was subsequently dismissed.
After a failed attempt at claiming automatic unfair dismissal for asserting her statutory right to own her intellectual property, Ms Gray was granted permission to amend her claims to 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 Tribunal found that her dismissal was prompted by her failure to sign the agreement, rather than her philosophical beliefs. Mulberry had no knowledge of her beliefs and other employees without such views who refused to sign would have also been dismissed. Further, the practice of signing copyright agreements did not place employees with similar beliefs at a disadvantage in comparison with non-believers and thus her indirect discrimination claim failed as there was no group disadvantage.
On appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal held that even though Ms Gray’s refusal to sign may have been dictated by her stated belief, such belief was not sufficiently cohesive to form any cogent philosophical belief and she failed to properly manifest it by not making her beliefs known. As the sole adherent of this belief, Ms Gray could not prove evidence of any group disadvantage and in any event, requiring her to sign or be dismissed was a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of protecting the company’s intellectual property.
Ms Gray appealed to the Court of Appeal who held that the debate regarding whether her belief constitutes a philosophical belief is irrelevant, as it did not put her at a disadvantage. There was no causal link between her belief and her refusal to sign (leading to her dismissal). Her real concern was that the agreement failed to adequately protect her own interests and the Court confirmed that a dispute regarding the wording of an agreement cannot constitute a philosophical belief. This was not a case concerning a sole adherent of a belief, as the importance of copyright is widely acknowledged. Instead, the main issue to be decided was whether Mulberry’s requirement put other “believers” at a disadvantage and the Court confirmed that there was no such evidence of the same.
From climate change to veganism, the Tribunals have seen an influx of litigation surrounding lifestyle choices capable of attracting protection as philosophical beliefs. Whilst Ms Gray’s claim was unsuccessful, the Court of Appeal’s decision here has nonetheless provided some welcome guidance for employers. Employers should ensure that any provisions, criteria or practices are carefully defined, evaluate whether any group of employees with a shared belief are at a disadvantage and if so, consider alternative methods of achieving the same aim.