In a big decision that will bolster the prospects of authors who hope to recapture rights from producers, Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller has prevailed in a legal battle over the franchise.
Producers of the cult 1980 horror film including companies associated with Sean Cunningham filed suit more than a year ago after Miller aimed to take advantage of a provision of copyright law that allows authors to terminate a grant of rights and reclaim ownership 35 years after publishing. The producers alleged that Miller wrote Friday the 13th as a work-made-for-hire after Cunningham came up with an idea to capitalize on the success of the then-recently released horror film Halloween. They asserted that his termination notice was ineffective.
“Nearly 40 years ago, a screenplay was written about Camp Crystal Lake,” opens a 62-page summary judgment opinion from U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill. “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.”
Miller disputed his screenplay was a work-made-for-hire, which under copyright law would mean that the producers authored the work and it wasn’t eligible for termination. His attorney Marc Toberoff argued that while the screenplay was clearly commissioned as part of a motion picture, there never was any writing instrument as required by law spelling out the screenplay was a work-made-for-hire.
The producers responded that not only did Cunningham conceive the idea, but he hired the team, obtained financing, controlled all creative decisions, and importantly, that Miller was a member of the Writers Guild of America, which used a standard form agreement that made clear Miller was an employee.
U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill has now granted summary judgment in favor of Miller and against the producers.
“I hold that Miller did not prepare the screenplay as a work for hire and that Miller’s Second Termination Notice validly terminated Horror’s rights to the copyright in the screenplay to Friday the 13th,” writes the judge.
Specifically, Underhill determines the screenplay wasn’t a work for hire, not prepared within scope of employment, and that labor law doesn’t require holding that screenwriter was an employee. Instead, he’s an independent contractor.
“In sum, although Cunningham possessed ultimate approval authority over Miller’s output, that fact is consistent with a hiring party’s role in both independent contractor and employment relationships,” states the opinion. “The simple fact that Cunningham provided direction or supervision is also not dispositive. Although the record points to frequent interaction between Cunningham and Miller, there is little in the record to suggest that such interactions frequently consisted of Cunningham exercising close control over Miller’s work, and there is nothing in the record that suggests Cunningham controlled the details of Miller’s creative expression or otherwise directed the performance of Miller’s daily activities. Despite a lack of detailed control over Miller’s expression or confining control over Miller’s work habits, however, Cunningham’s discussions with Miller and approval authority did broadly affect the aesthetic content of the screenplay.”
The decision has been pending for almost a year now, and the uncertainty over ownership has reportedly interfered with new sequels being made as well as derivative works like video games.
Miller’s victory also holds the prospect that he will control rights inside the U.S. while producers control rights outside the domestic market where termination recapture isn’t applied.
If no settlement occurs and any appeal is unsuccessful, there could be future legal battles over trademarks as well as the character of “Jason.” According to the producers, Miller created a “Jason” character who died as a young boy, while it was sequels that presented “Jason” as a living adult monster.
Underhill rules that Miller has successfully recaptures all the elements of his screenplay except for once scene involving a motorcycle police officer. The judge also writes, “I also decline to analyze the extent to which Miller can claim copyright in the monstrous ‘Jason’ figure present in sequels to the original film. Horror may very well be able to argue that the Jason character present in later films is distinct from the Jason character briefly present in the first film, and Horror or other participants may be able to stake a claim to have added sufficient independently copyrightable material to Jason in the sequels to hold independent copyright in the adult Jason character. That question is not properly before the court in this case, however.”