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Northwestern accuses former employee of taking copyrighted materials for Leopold and Loeb book

By Kenneth Lowe | Jul 29, 2014

An infamous Chicago murder is still casting echoes decades later, though not in the usual way.

Northwestern University is suing one of its former employees, demanding that she return a manuscript she was working on about the Leopold and Loeb murder.

The university filed suit against Nina Barrett last week in Chicago's federal court and on Monday, submitted an amended complaint accusing her of copyright infringement and conversion.

As part of her duties as writer and later communications specialist, Barrett in 2009 curated the exhibit, “The Murder that Wouldn’t Die: Leopold and Loeb in Fact, Fiction, and Artifact," about the 1924 murder of 14-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago.

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Leopold was released on parole in 1958 and died in Puerto Rico in 1971 while Loeb was killed by a fellow inmate while in prison.

Following the successful exhibit, the university decide to create a book about the Leopold and Loeb murder that would be published by the Northwestern University Press.

The task was assigned to Barrett, who the university claims she made off with copyrighted materials related to the book.

“Ms. Barrett, a former employee, willfully infringed Northwestern University’s copyright in the work ‘The Leopold and Loeb Files Book Proposal,’ by reproducing it and preparing derivative works based upon the work without Northwestern University’s permission,” the suit alleges.

In addition to the alleged copyright infringement, the university's suit includes a count for conversion that contends "Barrett, without Northwestern University’s authorization, wrongfully assumed control of electronic files relating to the Leopold and Loeb Files book project and has refused Northwestern University’s demands to return the property.”

Barrett worked on the book from 2009 to 2013, including some time under a fellowship. During that period, the university asserts it regularly listed completing various stages of the book on her performance evaluations and notes that Barrett received a memorandum from a supervisor specifically stating she would be afforded an additional eight hours a week to dedicate solely to the production of the book.

The suit does not note why Barrett resigned from her position at the University in December of 2013, but alleges she took all related materials with her when she left.

“After Ms. Barrett resigned, Northwestern University conducted a forensic examination of Ms. Barrett’s University-issued laptop as well as back-up files that she accessed on Northwestern University servers,” the suit alleges.

It goes on to explain that results of the examination showed that "sometime in October 2013, Ms. Barrett transferred files related to the Leopold and Loeb book project from the laptop to a USB-drive and that Ms. Barrett also restricted access to other files. The examination was able to recover a list of files that appear to be related to the Leopold and Loeb project. Northwestern University did not authorize these actions.”

Because Barrett was employed by the university at all times and because she was not a professor, the university asserts that her work constitutes a “work made for hire,” and as such, retains authorship of the work.

In addition to the copyright infringement and conversion counts it leveled against Barrett, the university is asking the court to issue a declaratory judgment that it is the owner of the copyright, and order Barrett to return all relevant materials.

Northwestern University is being represented by Richard J. O’Brien, Debra J. Stanek and Jason A. Cairns of Sidley Austin LLP.

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