Does Warner Bros. Really Have Exclusive Movie Rights to a Story Posted on Reddit? (Analysis)

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In the annals of Hollywood, there have been many tales of writers realizing their dreams by successfully pitching a studio on a film. But these days, with many studios getting sued left and right for allegedly ripping off ideas from writers, executives have become a lot more careful about unsolicited submissions.

Now comes the amazing tale of James Erwin, a largely unknown author who successfully got Warner Bros. to buy movie rights to his story about what would happen if U.S. Marines traveled back in time to fight the Roman Empire. Erwin accomplished this by posting a series of stories entitled "Rome, Sweet Rome" on, an online community that allows users to post links and have discussions with each other.

Warner Bros. aggressively snapped up rights to this story upon seeing it, but does the studio really hold exclusive rights to adapt a film adaptation?

Since selling his pitch, Erwin has abandoned Reddit, telling the ScreenRant website that it's not because he's become too big for his britches but rather because "The Internet is a chaotic, give-and-take place – and that creates nightmares for a lawyered-up industry based on locked-down IP rights."

Erwin might have a legitimate reason to worry about lawyers.

According to Reddit's "User Agreement," those who post on the site agree to certain conditions. Among them:

"you agree that by posting messages, uploading files, inputting data, or engaging in any other form of communication with or through the Website, you grant us a royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, enhance, transmit, distribute, publicly perform, display, or sublicense any such communication in any medium (now in existence or hereinafter developed) and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, and to authorize others to do so."

Arguably, this means that Reddit also has the right to take Erwin's story and license it to another studio -- say, Universal or 20th Century Fox.

In addition, although Erwin undoubtedly did much of the hard work in crafting the story himself, during the genesis of "Rome, Sweet Rome," some of Reddit's other users made suggestions to his work that may ultimately shape the final story.

So what exactly did Warner Bros. buy here?

Jerry Birenz, who is listed as the copyright agent for Reddit, says that this raises an "interesting issue" and that by a strict reading of the user agreement, multiple parties might be able to make a claim to a license if they chose to develop Erwin's story.

Birenz wouldn't speak further without getting permission from his client, and executives for Reddit didn't respond to requests for comment. (It's worth pointing out that Reddit is owned by a major publisher -- Condé Nast -- which has shown interest in more robust licensing activity)

Other lawyers also agree there may be room for another studio to ambush Warners' attempt at a film adaptation of a story posted on Reddit. This problem comes up, they say, because many social community sites wants to encourage active sharing and thus maintain permissive licensing arrangements.

"These assignable, nonexclusive licenses are everywhere, and problematic," says Denise Howell, an IP lawyer in California. "Many professional photographers are eschewing photo sharing sites because they need to be able to grant exclusive licenses to their clients."

Howell also points to Twitter, which has been known to be a breeding ground for talent and has led to several development deals for writers in Hollywood. 

Twitter used to expressly disclaim rights to user submissions, but it now says, "By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed)."

This is followed up with a "tip" to users that they are authorizing Twitter to make tweets available to everybody, which leads Howell to imagine what might happen if the company tried to sell rights to a creative work based on someone's Twitter account.

"A user could argue this 'tip' actually functions as a limitation on the scope of the license," Howell says, "and that the user reasonably believed the license would function only to enable Twitter to move tweets around its own extended ecosystem."

Perhaps Erwin might try to make a similar case that the scope of Reddit's license is actually limited.

Obviously, Erwin will write a screenplay and get copyright protection over that, but the question remains whether others are free to take the outlines of his story and adapt it.

Presented with Reddit's user agreement, a Warner Bros. spokesman declined to get into any legal analysis except to say it "has obtained exclusive rights to Rome, Sweet Rome."


Twitter: @eriqgardner