Friday the 13th Writer Gets Rights Back from Producer

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Friday the 13thIn a case that may have major repercussions in Hollywood, a federal judge has ruled that the screenwriter of the original 1980 horror movie  Friday the 13th movie own the copyright in his script.

With most “works of authorship,” such as screenplays, novels, songs, etc., the author owns the copyright. Copyright exists as of the moment the work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

A work can be “fixed” when, for example, it’s written down, saved on a hard-drive or in the Cloud, or recorded on a DVD or thumb drive.

A work that’s only spoken, performed, or thought up isn’t protected by copyright law until it’s fixed in some way.

Federal registration of copyright isn’t required in order for copyright to exist, but it is required before the copyright owner can sue someone for infringing the copyright.

Works for Hire

Movies are generally written as “works made for hire.”

A work made for hire (or work for hire) is a work of authorship created by an employee as part of his or her job, or in some cases created by an independent contractor under a written contract.

When a work is created “for hire,” the employer or client — rather than the person who actually did the work — is legally deemed to be the “author” and thus owns the copyright.

Most movies (and all studio movies) are written by screenwriters who belong to the Writers Guild of America (WGA), a professional union that, among other things, negotiates terms and conditions of employment for screenwriters.

Under standard WGA contracts, writers get residuals (a string of payments every time a copy of a movie is sold, downloaded, or broadcast) in exchange for giving up their copyrights.

Camp Crystal Lake

As the judge wrote in his opinion,

Nearly 40 years ago, a screenplay was written about Camp Crystal Lake. The film created from the screenplay went on to significant commercial success. Lurking below that peaceful surface, however, was the Copyright Act’s termination right, waiting for just the right moment, when it would emerge and wreak havoc on the rights to the screenplay.

As the judge noted, the Copyright Act, which went into effect in 1978, just a year before the Friday the 13th screenplay was written, gave authors a new and important benefit — the ability to terminate grants of their copyright interests and reclaim their copyrights, beginning thirty-five years after they first transferred their rights.

This right was established to allow authors to earn the “long tail” of proceeds from a successful work that they couldn’t initially have anticipated when they signed away their rights.

Clawback

However, there’s an exception to this clawback provision for “works made for hire.”

As The Hollywood Reporter reported, screenwriter Victor Miller argued that his script wasn’t a work for hire because there was never any written agreement stating that it was a work for hire.

However, the judge didn’t rule on whether Miller also owns the villainous character of “Jason” who first appeared in the movie but evolved significantly in the sequels.

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