Sanctity of copyright was not a protected philosophical belief

Gray v Mulberry Company (Design) Ltd

An employer did not discriminate when it dismissed an employee who refused to sign a copyright agreement because she held a ‘philosophical belief’ that she should own the rights to her work.

Background

When she started work at Mulberry, Ms Gray was asked to sign a standard contract clause which specified that the company would own the rights to any work she completed while employed by them. She refused on the basis that such a clause would impact on any work she did in her own time as a writer and filmmaker. Mulberry duly amended the clause to state that only work carried out in relation to its business would be covered. She still refused to sign and eight months after starting work she was dismissed. She lodged a tribunal claim for discrimination (both direct and indirect) on grounds of belief, i.e. her belief in the sanctity of copyright and that people should own and profit from their own work. She however conceded that her beliefs had been held privately and she had not referred to them during her discussions with Mulberry about the clause.

A tribunal dismissed her claim holding that Mulberry’s actions were a proportionate means of safeguarding its intellectual property and that her ‘belief’ was ineligible for protection. She appealed. Dismissing her appeal, the EAT held that her belief lacked sufficient cogency to qualify as a protected belief under the Equality Act - ‘having a belief relating to an important aspect of human life or behaviour is not enough in itself for it to have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief’. Moreover, there was no indirect discrimination. The sole adherent of a philosophical belief (as far as the evidence in this case showed) who cannot establish any group disadvantage, cannot succeed in a claim of indirect discrimination. Ms Gray appealed.

Court of Appeal decision

The appeal was dismissed.

There was no protected philosophical belief made out because there was no connection between any belief and Ms Gray’s refusal to sign the copyright agreement or her employer’s decision to dismiss her. What led to her refusal to sign and thus to her dismissal was her concern that the wording of the agreement favoured her employer and failed to protect her interests. A debate or dispute about the wording or interpretation of an agreement cannot qualify as a philosophical belief.

Link to judgment: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2019/1720.html

Comment

Whilst philosophical belief has a very wide meaning it must also be ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others’, be ‘a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour’ and it must attain a ‘certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance’. It can include humanism, atheism and pacifism but not, apparently, the sanctity of copyright.

However, it does seem that the tribunals are trying to narrow the definition. In Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd an employment tribunal accepted that Mr Conisbee was a vegetarian and had a genuine belief in vegetarianism and animal welfare. However, it held that vegetarianism is not capable of amounting to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. It is not enough merely to have an opinion based on logic. The EAT is to address the question of whether being a vegan is a philosophical belief in Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports, the tribunal having decided it was not.