Posted: July 23rd, 2019
Last fall, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut issued a summary judgment opinion in the case of Horror Inc. v. Miller which could have far-reaching implications for the relationships between screenwriters, studios, and production companies. In a fight for control of the “Friday the 13th” franchise, the court sided with screenwriter Victor Miller, allowing him to reclaim the rights to the script under a provision of the Copyright Act commonly known as the “termination right.” Horror Inc., the current owner of the franchise, and Sean Cunningham, the film’s director, filed an appeal to the Second Circuit which was granted earlier this month. The Second Circuit’s decision will not only impact “Friday the 13th” sequels and derivative works such as video games (which have been put on hold because of the trial) but potentially impact a multitude of similar agreements.
The Copyright Act’s termination right applies to works licensed on or after January 1, 1978 and allows authors to terminate the grant of rights after thirty-five years if the works were not “made for hire.” At the end of the thirty-five year period, a five-year window opens during which the grant may be terminated. To terminate the grant, the author that originally assigned the rights to the grantee must serve Notice of Termination on the grantee no more than ten, and no less than two years, prior to the effective date of termination. Upon the effective date of termination, all copyright interests conveyed under the initial grant revert back to the original author or authors, even if all authors did not join in the termination.
The fight between Horror Inc. and Miller is centered around whether or not the film, “Friday the 13th,” was a “work made for hire.” This distinction is important because under the Copyright Act, if a work is “made for hire,” the employer or person for whom the work was made is considered the author of the work and owner of the copyright. Miller contends that he created the work of his own volition as an independent contractor. Horror Inc. and Cunningham counter that Miller wrote the movie at Cunningham’s request, while a member of the Writers Guild of America. They further assert that under WGA’s collective bargaining agreement, a “screenwriter writing a screenplay for a WGA signatory is an employee.” At trial, the district court opined that these facts were not enough to consider “Friday the 13th” a “work made for hire” and granted summary judgment to Miller.
If the Second Circuit upholds the district court’s decision, there could be widespread ramifications for studios, production companies, and screenwriters. Although the termination right became effective in 1978, screenwriters could not invoke the right until recent years due to the thirty-five-year waiting period. In the years since 1978, countless movies have undoubtedly been created under agreements similar to the one being litigated in Horror Inc. v. Miller. Thus, if the Second Circuit affirms the district court’s ruling, many of those agreements could potentially be terminated, a prospect that no doubt horrifies studios and production companies.
Cameron Rush is a rising second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee where he earned his degree in Political Science. Before returning to law school, he spent several years working in government relations.