"Friday The 13th" writer wins back copyright

Victor Miller wrote the original screenplay for the first Friday the 13th movie. But he hasn't seen a penny from any of the twelve spin-off movies or other media franchising that the film has spawned over the last four decades. This is a sadly common story in the entertainment industry. But this time, it might have a happy ending. From The Hollywood Reporter:

On Thursday [September 30, 2021], the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a win for [Miller] in a copyright termination battle. As a result, he's set to reclaim the domestic rights to the franchise.

Miller attempted to leverage the part of copyright law that allows authors to reclaim the rights to what they once created after waiting a statutory set period of time.

Sean Cunningham, who produced and directed the original Friday the 13th, curiously, tried to use Miller's union membership against him to prevent the copyright termination:

Cunningham's company argued that weight should be placed on how the Writers Guild of America collectively bargains for working conditions, and as such, Miller should be deemed an employee with no standing to terminate copyright. The finding that he wasn't an employee under copyright law conflicted with the National Labor Relations Act, it was further posited by the producer.

In other words, Cunningham argued that Miller, as a member of the Writer's Guild, was technically an employee, and therefore, any property he produced as an employee of the Writer's Guild belonged to the company for which he produced it — in this case, Cunningham's production company (and notably not the Writer's Guild under which he was employed, according to this argument). Miller countered, and the court agreed, that he produced the screenplay as work-for-hire, and is therefore entitled to authorship rights.

As the court's opinion states:

That labor law was determined to offer labor protections to independent writers does not have to reduce the protections provided to authors under the Copyright Act. That Miller was a WGA member and Manny an employer covered by the MBA when Miller agreed to write the Screenplay, does not in and of itself establish an employment relationship between the two for Copyright Act purposes. 

It's certainly an interesting strategy for the movie studio to conflate copyright and labor law — but, at least in this case, the gambit failed. It's also interesting that this news comes on the heels of the most recent Marvel IP lawsuits, which similarly hinge on a question of contracting vs employment; that case is a bit more complicated, however, because the legal language and expectations of such contracts were different in the 1960s when Steve Ditko created Spider-Man.

'Friday the 13th' Screenwriter Wins Big Appeal Over Copyright Termination [Eriq Gardner / The Hollywood Reporter]

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