Intellectual Property Insights from Fishman Stewart PLLC
Newsletter – Volume 23, Issue 23
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Remaking Friday the 13th
By Kristyn Webb
Happy Friday the 13th! You may recall our last article on this theme was authored by Norm Freda. Here is a brief recap before we update you on the latest in the legal battle over the copyrights to the classic horror film Friday the 13th.
Back in 1979, Victor Miller was hired to write a screenplay that would later become the Friday the 13th movie released in 1980. He was paid around $9,200 and the film went on to make $40 million at the box office and spawned nearly a dozen sequels, several video games, a television series, along with music and merchandise. Fast forward to 2016, Miller sought to reclaim his ownership in the copyright of the screenplay. Under United States copyright law, an author of a work may terminate an assignment or license of a copyright decades after the assignment or license was made. This allows an author to “claw back” their copyrights—which happens more often when a work becomes commercially valuable. For example, Disney’s Marvel franchise has been fighting legal battles with the estates of the artists who created characters such as Spider Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, Black Widow, and Iron Man. However, when an employee creates a work within the scope of their employment, the work is “made for hire” and the employer is considered the author of a work.
After years of litigation and appeals, Miller won back his copyrights. He was not an employee, so, Miller retained his status as the screenplay’s author. Though he had assigned his rights to his employer in 1979, as the author, he was entitled many decades later to terminate that assignment and reclaim his copyrights in the screenplay.
Now, the producer of the 1980 film, Sean Cunningham, has announced plans to move forward with another story in the Friday the 13th universe. Many of the elements recurring in the sequels and derivatives that followed the 1980 film incorporated protected elements of Miller’s screenplay. Procuring rights from Miller to make further sequels or spin-offs may be expensive, or even impossible. So, Cunningham has announced plans to shift course and make a prequel. This strategy may help him navigate around the copyrighted elements owned by Miller, without sacrificing too much of the established storyline or creating narrative plot holes that might riddle a sequel or equal story.
The prequel, called “Crystal Lake” is set to be a television series to be released in 2024. For fans of the franchise, this is long overdue, since the last film was released in 2009. For copyright fans, this is another plot twist in the ongoing saga of Friday the 13th.
Kristyn Webb is the Group Leader of Fishman Stewart’s Copyright Practice Group, and is currently earning a Master’s Degree in Copyright Law at King’s College London.
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