The domestic rights to the iconic horror film Friday the 13th are going back to the original writer. A federal appellate court recognized the right of the screenplay writer, Victor Miller, to get back his copyright from the companies that made the film. The case is an important victory for screenwriters and a lesson for production companies when contracting with writers and other creatives.
Victor Miller transferred his rights in the Friday the 13th screenplay to film production company, Manny, Inc., decades ago. Almost forty years later, in 2016, Miller sent a notice of copyright termination to Manny, Inc. and Horror Inc. (who had subsequently acquired the rights from Manny) as allowed for under copyright law. The companies sued in court to have the notice declared invalid.
In Horror Inc. v. Miller, the plaintiff companies argued that the screenplay to the landmark film was created as a “work made for hire” and therefore, Miller does not have the right to terminate the copyright. Now, after a five-year legal battle, both the U.S. District Court and 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled in favor of Miller finding that he was an independent contractor, had only assigned his rights to his script, and could now terminate transfer of his copyright.
U.S. copyright law allows a creator or the creator’s heirs to regain ownership of rights transferred to another party under certain circumstances. (See 17 U.S.C. §§ 203, 304(c), and 304(d)). While the purpose is to give creators a second chance to profit from the economic success of their work, the rules are confusing and strict.
Generally, the right to terminate can be exercised only within a small window between 35 and 40 years after the author transferred the copyright. Who is eligible to terminate and when they can exercise that right depends on when the transfer was made, who executed it and when copyright was originally secured for the work.
Importantly, the copyright termination provision only applies to transfers or assignments of rights, not to works made for hire. As such, the pivotal issue in the Friday the 13th case and many others was whether the material was created as a “work made for hire.”
The work made for hire doctrine provides that the creator does not own the copyright to a work if:
Manny and Horror argued that Miller had created the work as an employee in the scope of his employment, qualifying it as a work made for hire. The companies pointed to the fact that Miller was represented by the Writers Guild of America (“WGA”) union in collective bargaining, and that Miller worked closely with Manny’s producer in developing the screenplay as opposed to having substantial control over how he did his job. Further, Manny registered the copyright as a work for hire with U.S. Copyright Office.
The Court rejected these arguments focusing on factors indicating that Miller was an independent contractor. The Court indicated that Manny and Horror did not provide employee benefits, that Miller was paid in lump sums without taking out taxes, and that Miller had sole writer credit. Further, the companies did not give Miller other projects, and mostly exercised general approval authority over the script rather than controlling development of the script. In addition, the Court noted that registering the work as a work for hire only created a presumption that it was a work for hire, but Miller rebutted that presumption.
Under Horror Inc. v. Miller, screenwriters stand to benefit significantly. The case arguably makes it easier for screenwriters to show they have rights as the original creator of a work and therefore can terminate the transfer of their rights as provided under copyright law. If they can terminate, anyone wanting to use the work must negotiate with the screenwriter to obtain a new license to the work, which means additional revenue to writers.
Going forward, anyone hiring screenwriters must consider how to protect their rights. The Court indicated that membership in the WGA does not automatically make the writer an employee to the production company. In addition, registering the work as a work made for hire is not determinative of that issue. All factors must be weighed. As a result, it is essential to have good legal advice. An experienced attorney can assist you in navigating your legal obligations and rights.