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Victor Miller once scared moviegoers with Friday the 13th. Four decades after penning that influential horror flick, which prompted numerous sequels, he’s scored an important legal victory that may frighten Hollywood producers. On Thursday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a win for him 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. It’s not unlike what the heirs of comic book creators are now attempting to do against Disney, although there are important differences given the Marvel comic books at issue were published before copyright law was changed in the mid-1970s and Friday the 13th came afterward. But in alignment with Disney’s argument, Friday the 13th producer Sean Cunningham argued that Miller contributed his screenplay as a work made for hire and that it was ineligible for termination. In September 2018, a federal judge ruled it wasn’t a work made for hire.
The appeal hinged on Miller’s membership in a screenwriters union. 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.
The 2nd Circuit (after a very lengthy delay that annoyed Friday the 13th fans waiting for new sequels) rejects that argument and concludes Miller was an independent contractor when he wrote the screenplay and is therefore entitled to authorship rights.
“The Copyright Act and the NLRA serve altogether different purposes and focus on different economic sectors,” writes Circuit Judge Susan Carney.
Referring to one time the Supreme Court took up commissioned works and works for hire, she adds, “As the Supreme Court explored extensively in [Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid], section 101 of the Copyright Act uses a more restrictive definition of employment, one aimed at limiting the contours of the work-for-hire determination and protecting authors — the individual creators of works whose foundational value the Constitution itself recognizes and Congress has expounded upon. In the labor and employment law context, in contrast, the concept of employment is broader, adopting a more sweeping approach suitable to serve workers and their collective bargaining interests and establishing rights (in the NLRA), their safety rights (in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 651, et seq.), and pay rights (in the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq.), for example.”
The 2nd Circuit panel advises that the determination of whether an individual is an “employee” will thus vary within different statutory schemes, and here, there’s no sound reason to depart from copyright law’s understanding to mirror labor law’s.
“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,” states the opinion (read in full here).
The decision is a victory for Marc Toberoff, an attorney who has made a good career in representing authors seeking to enforce copyright termination rights.
As for Cunningham’s company, it might seek a rehearing before a fuller panel at the 2nd Circuit. If that fails, there could be a petition to the Supreme Court, which might be intrigued by the novel overlap of intellectual property law and labor law.
And there’s still reason for settlement given that the producer retains (nonexclusive) foreign rights as well as intellectual property derived from Friday the 13th sequels, including maybe the monstrous “Jason” character that showed up later in the franchise.
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