Lois Lane’s Employment Contract

This will probably be our last post on Man of Steel.  No spoiler warning on this one, as I can set up the issue without giving anything of consequence away.

In Man of Steel, Lois Lane works as a reporter for the Daily Planet (no surprise there).  At one point in the movie, she has a disagreement with her boss, Perry White, over whether to run a certain story, and she threatens to quit.  White tells her that she can’t do that because she’s under contract, and Lois concedes the argument.

Wait, what?

I. Employment Contracts

How can Lane’s employment contract prevent her from quitting her job?  Surely the Planet can’t literally force her to work.  Doesn’t the Thirteenth Amendment have something to say about that?

And it does.  The Planet can’t force Lane to work, and a court can’t order her to work if she breaches her employment contract.  But that doesn’t mean an employment contract is completely toothless from the employer’s point of view.  There are two major techniques that the Planet might have used when drafting the contract to make it in Lane’s best interest to keep working for the Planet rather than quit: damages and a non-compete agreement.

II. Damages

Ordinarily in a breach of employment contract case it’s the employee who seeks damages from the employer, typically arguing that the employer owes them whatever they were due under the contract in the form of salary or other compensation.  Of course, that only works if it’s the employer that broke the contract.  If it’s the employee that reneged on the deal, then things could go the other way.

In cases where the employee is the breaching party, employers don’t often sue for damages because a) employees usually don’t have a lot of money and b) it’s difficult to say how much the employee’s work would have been worth.  This is different from the reverse situation, where the employer typically has deep pockets and it’s very clear what the employee was owed in terms of salary.

One possible solution to this problem is a liquidated damages clause, which says something like “if Lane breaches the contract then she must pay the Planet $X.”  Basically it’s an upfront agreement regarding the damages in the event of a breach of contract.  There are some limits and restrictions on such clauses, but they are, in principle, allowed in employment contracts as long as they are reasonable and not punitive.  See, e.g., Kozlik v. Emelco, Inc., 240 Neb. 525 (1992).

Faced with the prospect of having to pay the Planet the approximate value of her services to them, Lane would probably conclude that it was better to keep working.

III. Non-Compete Agreements

As the name suggests, these clauses bar the employee from competing with the employer after they quit working for the employer.  Usually this means that the employee can’t work for a competitor or in the same industry for a certain period of time, typically no more than a few years.  The agreement may also be limited geographically (e.g. only apply to the city where the employee was working).

Some states strongly disfavor non-compete agreements, whereas others are generally okay with them as long as they are reasonably narrow in scope.  We don’t know where Metropolis is, but it’s likely that it’s in a state that accepts non-compete agreements.  If Lois Lane was subject to a non-compete, then quitting the Planet would mean quitting being a journalist, at least in the Metropolis area.  That’s a powerful incentive not to quit.

IV. Conclusion

Although the Planet might not have literally been able to force Lane to keep working, her employment contract may have effectively done so anyway.

12 responses to “Lois Lane’s Employment Contract

  1. Granted, I know close to nothing about intellectual property law, but couldn’t there also be something in her contract that would have prevented her from publishing the story elsewhere after she quit? That’s how I took that scene to play; i.e. publish it or I’ll quit [and go elsewhere and publish it]. Could there be (and is there likely to be) a provision in her contract that gives the copyright to her work to the Planet? Isn’t that work for hire?

    • The IP situation is a little complicated. Yes, she is an employee, and so the copyright in copyrightable works that she produces within the scope of her employment would ordinarily automatically vest in her employer. But, there is no copyright in the news as such (i.e. the mere fact that something has occurred), though there is a quasi-property right in fresh news once it has been published. International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215 (1918). So, she might be on shaky ground trying to publish the story she’s already written verbatim somewhere else, depending on how florid her prose is, but she could re-write it in a way that reused only the facts (or better yet, serve as an interview subject for another writer).

      • Wouldn’t the Daily Planet’s copyright only extend to something that Lois published in the Daily Planet? I realize that there are instances where companies preemptively assert copyright (similar, I suppose, to companies being the holders of patents for products developed by their employees). But Lois had published on another website – conspiracytheorist.net or whatever it was – not on the Planet, either in print or on line. Wouldn’t the ownership of the copyright (Lois or the site) for the article then fall under that site’s policy, not the Planet’s?

      • James Pollock

        Ann, copyright exists from the point of creation, not the point of publication.

      • I know that copyright exists from creation, but if the original article was written with the express intent of being published in a different publication that the Daily Planet, the Planet would have a hard time trying to assert copyright over it. After all, journalists write books all the time, and I would imagine that their newspapers don’t hold the copyright to the books, even if they do hold the copyright to the articles that the journalists wrote with the intention of having them published in that paper. A paper would clearly have more control over a salaried writer than a free-lance one (though they clearly can claim copyright over articles submitted by free-lancers), but I highly doubt that the Washington Post holds the copyright to every book written by Bob Woodward. Wouldn’t this be the same, or Lois could at least argue that it’s the same?

      • James Pollock

        Employment contracts for creative-types typically include a right of first refusal. The Planet doesn’t want to pay a reporter’s salary to have them research and write a story that appears elsewhere, so they’ll write their contracts in such a way that it’s employees (as opposed to its stringers) can work for other news organizations. Stringers DO work for other news organizations as well, but aren’t paid salary.

      • James Pollock

        Also, I don’t know about now, but in the past, reporters who wrote books usually took a leave of absence from their regular employers to do it.

      • Presumably this would be something dealt with in her contract, insofar as it covers whether or not agrees to not engage in journalistic activities independently of her employment with the Daily Planet (which she’s clearly doing with that piece). That would presumably be different from her undertaking other forms of writing for profit/publication (e.g. writing a book).

        Of course, I’m just speculating here, as I have no knowledge of contract law.

  2. Got it, thanks. The idea of her simply serving as another reporter’s source is consistent with what I think supposedly happened. She talked to the guy with the conspiracy website and he wrote an article. Perry then tells her in a later scene that the lawyers are saying he should sue her – I was wondering in that scene whether the suit would be for her disclosure of research results and investigative materials that the Planet would claim was its property to divulge, not hers… Maybe that’s more related to a confidentiality provision?

  3. It is probably worth mentioning as well that any contract would outline the circumstances in which either party could end the contract. In the specific circumstances of an employment contract from an employee’s perspective this would include a notice period – a period which Lois would be required to keep working before she left. However, instead of a liquidated damages clause in case of a breach, a far likelier option for the Daily Planet would be a set penalty for ending the contract before its term was up, no matter what the circumstances. These arrangements are more common where some kind of training of or investment in the employee is involved, but still. It is in my opinion unlikely that it would be an amount Lois could easily afford.
    I wrote that scene off as Perry not understanding the contract as drawn up by HR rather than evidence the contract prevented Lois from leaving, however.

  4. For Zack Snyder’s purposes, the location and legal nature of his movie’s version of Metropolis (the latter of which might make for an interesting column topic in itself):

    http://www.movies.com/movie-news/man-of-steel-metropolis/12381

    It fits with pictures of prop license plates I’d seen on Superman-specific websites, such as this:

    http://www.supermanhomepage.com/images/man-of-steel-movie2/110914-taxi1.html

  5. Pingback: The Man of Steel Confesses | Law and the Multiverse

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