The Hollywood Reporter has published a story that major studios risk losing their franchise rights to major 80’s films like Terminator, Friday the 13th and Who Framed Roger Rabbit because authors have the right to terminate grants to their work and regain ownership under copyright law.
Under U.S. copyright law, authors (or, if the authors are not alive, their surviving spouses, children, or executors), can “terminate” copyright assignments they have previously made in certain circumstances and regain rights to their work. Consequently, even if an author, musician, or filmmaker signed an agreement transferring all rights in their work in perpetuity, the Copyright Act provides that the author can terminate that grant and demand that the rights revert. Essentially, the author is getting a second chance to make money from his work.
Congress deemed these provisions desirable “because of the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work's value until it has been exploited.” However, the mechanism that Congress put in place in order to allow authors and their heirs to regain their rights is complicated.
Copyright termination rights are found in § 203 and § 304 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. The relevant provisions in § 203 of the statute set forth that “[i]n the case of any work other than a work made for hire, the exclusive or nonexclusive grant of a transfer or license of copyright or of any right under a copyright, executed by the author on or after January 1, 1978, otherwise than by will, is subject to termination. Termination of works assigned after January 1, 1978 may be exercised during a five-year window that starts 35 years after the date of assignment under certain conditions. These conditions include the requirement that the author provide notice of an intent to exercise the termination right between two and ten years before the effective date of the termination. On the effective date of termination, all rights previously transferred from the author to the grantee revert to the author.
Works previously created before termination can continue to be distributed. The owner of a film produced based on a novel, for example, can continue to exploit the movie because that grant was prepared under authority of rights before termination. However, no new sequels or remakes could be made after termination.
It bears noting that termination rights cannot be waived in advance by contract including an agreement to make a will or to make any future grant.” §§ 203(a)(5), 304(c)(5).
These rules do not apply when the content created was made as a work for hire. This is one reason it is preferable for producers to enter into work for hire agreements with their collaborators, rather than obtain rights from them by way of assignment.
Notices of termination may be served no earlier than 25 years after the execution of the grant or, if the grant covers the right of publication, no earlier than 30 years after the execution of the grant or 25 years after publication under the grant (whichever comes first). However, termination of a grant cannot be effective until 35 years after the execution of the grant or, if the grant covers the right of publication, no earlier than 40 years after the execution of the grant or 35 years after publication under the grant (whichever comes first).
The provisions generally provide that transfers before 1978 can be terminated during a five-year period beginning at the end of 56 years from the date copyright was originally secured, while transfers after 1978 can be terminated during a five year period beginning either 35 or 40 years after execution of the grant, depending on the nature of the grant.
Mark Litwak recently represented Claimant Aletheia Films (Robert Rippberger) in an arbitration against Respondent Raging Nations Films whose principal is Dale Resteghini. The parties had agreed to collaborate in the production of a pilot called “Cracka.” Claimant asserted that Raging Nations had deviated from the production plan, refused to reimburse Claimant its expenses, failed to provide a screen credit, denied Claimant its equity interest and tried to remove it from the project.
After four days of hearings, Claimant was determined to be the prevailing party. Respondent's counter claim was dismissed.
The arbitrator found: “Raging Nation tried to cut Aletheia Films out of the Cracka Project after production and tried to keep Aletheia from receiving any benefits under the signed MOU contract.” The arbitrator restored all of Claimant’s rights under the agreement including its copyright interest and its profit participation.
Claimant was also awarded compensatory damages of $16,742, costs of $11,257.91, and reimbursement of attorney fees of $75,579.35 for a total award of $103,579.26.
A Manhattan Beach man, Adam Joiner, was arrested and faces federal charges in connection with an alleged fake movie project that cost investors $14 million dollars, according to a criminal complaint filed in United States District Court. The complaint alleges wire fraud, money laundering and aggravated identity theft.
According to the affidavit in support of the complaint, Joiner used fake documents and forged signatures to raise millions of dollars from foreign investment firms based in South Korea and China for a project called “Legends,” described in court papers as an anachronistic mash-up of legendary and historical figures such as Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry. The fake documents included a bogus Netflix distribution agreement.
The FBI’s Complex Financial Crime squad of the Los Angeles Office investigated the matter. Joiner is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 23, according to the U.S attorney’s office.
As the owner of a company called Dark Planet Pictures, LLC, Joiner allegedly showed investors forged documents. The FBI reviewed the company’s bank records and found that more than $5 million of the investors’ money was used to purchase a Manhattan Beach home.
If convicted, Joiner could face up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud, up to 10 years for money laundering, and a mandatory two years for aggravated identity theft.
Read the press release regarding the Criminal Complaint.
For more information on how investors can protect themselves, read my article: The Hollywood Shuffle: Protecting Film Investors, published in the Vanderbilt Law Journal.
In determining whether an individual providing service to another is an independent contractor or an employee, the "control" test, is often used initially to make this evaluation. To put it simply, an employee is an individual who the employer has the right to exercise control over the manner and means by which the individual performs his or her services.
However on April 30, 2018, the California Supreme Court adopted an expansive definition of "employee" and rejected the Borello test for determining whether workers should be classified as either employees or independent contractors for the purposes of the wage orders adopted by California’s Industrial Welfare Commission (“IWC”) in favor of a worker-friendly standard that may upend the existing independent contractor labor market.
Under the new so called ABC test, a worker will be deemed to have been “suffered or permitted to work,” and thus, an employee for wage order purposes, unless the employer proves:
(A) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact;
(B) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and
(C) that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.
Each of these requirements need to be met in order for the presumption that a worker is an employee to be rebutted, and for a court to recognize that a worker has been properly classified as an independent contractor.
This new test will likely result in many “independent contractors” in the entertainment industry being reclassified as employees.
In addition, under existing California Labor Code section 3351.5(c), if a service contract has “work made for hire” language, the worker is deemed to be an employee, and almost all contracts in the industry have this kind of language vesting ownership in the employer.
Eight Defendants Charged with Running Two of the Largest Illegal Streaming Services in the United States
Eight persons who are behind two of the largest illegal streaming services in the U.S. have been indicted on charges of conspiring to violate federal criminal copyright law, the Department of Justice has announced.
According to the indictment, the defendants allegedly ran an entity called Jetflicks, an online subscription-based service based in Las Vegas, Nevada, that permitted users to stream and, sometimes download copyrighted television programs without the consent of the copyright holders.
The defendants copied thousands of copyrighted television episodes without authorization, and distributed the infringing programs to tens of thousands of paid subscribers located throughout the U.S. At one point, Jetflicks claimed to have more than 183,200 different television episodes. Read the Department of Justice news release.
The Music Modernization Act (aka the Orrin G. Hatch Music Modernization Act), was passed unanimously in the Senate. The bill is now waiting on a vote in the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass and then be signed by President Trump and become law. At a time when bipartisan agreement is rare, this was an extraordinary compromise supported by both Democrats and Republicans as well as most of the music industry.
The bill is essentially a fix for some issues that have arisen from streaming music by companies like Spotify. The Music Licensing Collective it establishes will begin operating on Jan. 1, 2021. This clearinghouse will be run by the artists and publishers and be paid for by the digital streaming services. It will maintain a public database that will permit streaming music services to easily locate data about who owns music and ensure that the owners are compensated for it. The Act updates licensing and royalties for streaming and provides that songwriters and artists receive royalties for pre-1972 songs.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the home video market for sales and rentals of movies continues to decline as more consumers turn to Netflix and other services for movies. Revenue from sales and rentals of movies and television shows totaled $12 billion in 2016, down seven percent from the prior year, according to data released Friday by trade organization Digital Entertainment Group. At the same time, subscription streaming services continued rapid growth, increasing nearly 23 percent to $6.23 billion in consumer spending. For the first quarter of 2017, Electronic Sell Through increased 13 percent. Consumer spending on home-video entertainment grew two percent from the same period in 2016.
Info Wars has settled a copyright infringement suit for a pittance. The site is a fringe media outlet founded by radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. It is notorious for spreading outlandish conspiracy theories, including that the September 11, 2001 attacks were carried out by the United States government, and the “Pizzagate” story which claimed Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex trafficking ring run out of a restaurant in Washington D.C. The Pizzagate story induced a 29-year-old North Carolina man to open fire inside the pizzeria believing he was saving children from a sex-slave ring. He was subsequently sentenced to four years in jail. None of this has deterred Jones, who continues to live stream his show from the Info Wars' website after losing access to Twitter and Facebook which have permanently banned him.
Jones is currently being sued by Sandy Hook families over his claims that the shooting of 20 first-graders and six educators in 2012 was staged by paid actors who faked the children's deaths. Jones later admitted that the shooting was real, but the suit continues, and the damages against him might limit his ability to promote his conspiracy theories.
In a lesser known case, Jones was sued for copyright infringement for using the Pepe the Frog character for a MAGA poster that was sold on his website. Matt Furie is the creator of the character which was first used in his 2003 comic book, Play Time, and then appeared in other Furie comic books. After white supremacists began using "Pepe" during the 2016 presidential election, Furie became upset that his character was being used as a "hate symbol."
Jones claimed that Pepe’s image on the poster was protected by the First Amendment because it is transformative, and he has possible defenses of fair use, de minimis use and abandonment of the copyright, which is when one intentionally relinquishes enforcement of one’s copyright.
Damages from copyright infringement can be substantial although often difficult to prove. Furie sought $1.2 million dollars in statutory damages as set forth in 17 U.S.C. § 504(c). For infringements that are not willful, statutory damages range from $750 to $30,000 per infringement. The amount depends on the seriousness of the infringing act. However, one who knowingly infringes another copyright can be subject to damages of as much as $150,000 for a single infringement.
However, Furie’s failure to timely register his copyright limited his potential recovery. He didn’t seek copyright registration until September 2017. He elected to settle the case after the judge ruled that Furie could not seek statutory damages and reimbursement of attorney fees because he had not timely registered his copyright. The ruling severely limited the amount of potential damages Furie could recover.
An author must register a copyright to file a suit for infringement in federal court. 17 U.S.C. § 411(a). If the work is registered prior to infringement (or after infringement but within three months of first publication of the work), the owner may obtain statutory damages and/or attorney fees. However, a prevailing defendant may seek attorney fees regardless of whether the plaintiff had a timely registration.
The settlement agreement includes a provision that Info Wars destroy any copies of the poster in its possession. Info Wars also agreed not to sell any other items with Pepe’s likeness without permission.
This case is an t example of why it is important to timely register your copyright.
More information on Copyright Registration.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the talent agencies represented by the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) are on a collision course. The WGA wants to stop agencies from having an interest in affiliated production companies and taking packaging fees. Packaging is the practice of an agent putting together a script, star and director and presenting it as a bundled deal to a studio or network. The practice is largely dominated by the major talent agencies who can draw on their large pool of clients to assemble an attractive project. Packaging is mostly a television phenomenon and is extremely lucrative for the agencies. Instead of taking a ten percent commission on their client’s earnings, the agency instead receives a percentage of the production budget and often a share of the profits. While agents usually forego commissioning their clients when they take a packaging fee, the amount paid them reduces the funds that can be spent on production, including compensation paid to writers. And an agency receiving a package fee has less incentive to get their writer greater compensation because it does not affect the fee the agency receives.
What seems to be lost in the controversy is why packaging has become so dominant in the industry. It is not just that the big talent agencies are greedy. It is because the studios and networks have relinquished much of the creative control they used to exert.
When a studio finds a script it likes, it will not approve it for production without knowing who the director or showrunner will be, the identity of the principal cast and the of the budget. If the studio wants to package elements itself, it must option the script and expend the effort to assemble the other elements before the option expires. Unless the studio has commissioned the script and owns it, that means paying the writer an option fee to take the script off the market. That is often ten percent of the purchase price, which for a desirable script can be a significant sum. Then the studio must find a director or showrunner, and the most sought-after people are often in great demand. The studio will also want to secure a star or name actor or two before committing funds to its production. The truth is that studio executives often prefer to accept an agency package than to assemble one themselves. It is a lot of work to find a good script and recruit a director and stars that want to collaborate. Let’s say you find a script you like and can interest a director. Now you approach stars, but it takes weeks for them to read the script and respond as most are in high demand and many will ultimately decline. Or perhaps the star likes the script but wants changes made to it or who will direct it. Or their busy schedule means the shoot must be postponed until next spring, but that conflicts with commitments made by the director, the co-star or producer. And while you are paying option and holding fees, you are taking a financial risk which will be a complete write off if the project collapses and never gets produced. Herding cats may be easier than assembling elements into a package.
Consequently, studio executives have found that it is much easier to let a big agency package a project and present all the elements on a silver platter to them. All the buyer has to say is yes or no. They don’t have to rush about trying to secure elements before their option expires or juggle personalities and schedules. The studios and networks complain about packaging fees, but no one is forcing them to accept packages.
The fact is the studios have evolved and become financiers and distributors rather than producers. They don’t exercise creative control like the old days when a mogul would staff a project by simply picking among the writers, directors and stars they employed under long term contracts. The studios today are more like banks considering a mortgage. Bring them the right paperwork, check the boxes and its approved.
The WGA is correct that packaging poses a conflict of interest for agents. But agents are awash in conflicts of interests. The top agencies represent hundreds of stars, director and writers who compete for the same projects. And writers want to be represented by these agents because of their clout and relationships with studios as well as access to the stars and directors they represent. A writer given the choice of retaining an agent who would only represent her, or an agency that represents a lot of top talent, will usually choose the later.
The problem with this struggle between the WGA and ATA is that there is no middle ground. Unlike a labor negotiation which is a matter of haggling over work rules and minimums there is plenty of room to compromise. I don’t see the WGA backing down, and I think the agencies will strenuously resist losing a large portion of their income. Moreover, if the WGA is successful in banning the practice of packaging, that may only encourage more agents to become managers who are completely unregulated and often produce their client’s projects. So, stay tuned. It is going to be interesting.
More about the controversy.
Mark returns to NYC to present his one day seminar with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts: SELF-DEFENSE FOR WRITERS AND FILMMAKERS
Writers and filmmakers need to understand their legal rights and how to defend themselves from those who may seek to exploit them or falsely claim their rights have been infringed.
This seminar explains how writers and filmmakers can prevent problems from arising by properly securing underlying rights, and by encouraging other parties to live up to agreements by adding performance incentives, default penalties and arbitration clauses. In the event of a dispute, participants learn what remedies are available to enforce their rights. Related topics include protecting your stories, typical compensation and terms of contracts, merchandising deals, and negotiating tactics and strategies. The seminar includes more than 100 pages of useful contracts, checklists, forms and materials.
This seminar is for filmmakers and lawyers. Lawyers earn Seven (7) Continuing Legal Education credits: 4 Areas of Professional Practice credits, 2 Skills credits, and 1 Ethics credit.
When: Friday, April 26, 2019, 10 AM – 6 PM
Where: Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, 4 Times Square, New York, NY 10036
For more info and to Register
In Dr. Seuss Enters., L.P. v. ComicMix LLC, Defendants created a Kickstarter campaign in order to fund printing and distribution of an allegedly infringing work, Oh, the Places You'll Boldly Go! ("Boldly"), a mashup which combines aspects of various Dr. Seuss works with certain characters, imagery, and other elements from Star Trek, the science fiction entertainment franchise created by Gene Roddenberry.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California dismissed the trademark claims but refused to dismiss the copyright infringement claim on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence of whether this work would affect the market for Dr. Seuss works. The court found that Boldly failed to qualify as a parody even though it was transformative, explaining “it combines into a completely unique work the two disparate worlds of Dr. Seuss and Star Trek. [Boldly] tells the tale of a young boy setting out on adventure and discovering and confronting many strange beings and circumstances along his path.” The court has now made its decision and dismissed the entire suit. This is another in a recent line of cases enhancing the right of fair use.
While the defendants were found to take various elements from Dr. Seuss works, including cross-hatching, object placements, certain distinctive facial features and lines written in anapestic tetrameter, they did not use any words, characters or the universe of the original. The Court concluded that Plaintiff had failed to sustain its burden to demonstrate that Boldly is likely substantially to harm the market for Boldly. Instead, the “potential harm to Plaintiff’s market” was found to be “hypothetical.”
The court found the work was "highly creative" and that took no more than was necessary even though it was a commercial endeavor that may or may not harm the marketplace for the original.
You can view a sample of the book here
You can read the court decision here.
One useful resource in determining fair use is the copyright office’s compilation of cases in its Fair Use Index .
Congratulations to our client Steven Fine whose feature directorial debut Love Shot will be released today on Comcast, Directv, iTunes, Prime Video, Redbox, Barnes & Noble, Walmart and numerous other platforms and stores.
Gravitas Ventures acquired domestic rights while Cinetel Films has acquired international rights.
The film won the audience choice award at the Culver City Music Festival. Watch the trailer Here
The Michael Jackson estate has sued HBO over its new and very controversial documentary Leaving Neverland that recently premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival. The documentary tells the story of Michael Jackson’s long-running relationships with two boys, aged 7 and 10, and their families. Now in their 30s, the men claim they were sexually abused by Jackson. The four-hour film is set to air March 3rd and 4th on HBO.
The film has been called both shocking and brutal in its revelations. It has also been criticized for being one sided by not allowing the Jackson’s estate and family an opportunity to refute the allegations. The documentary pays little attention to the fact that the alleged victims’ lawsuits against the Jackson estate were dismissed although on appeal. Moreover, Jackson was acquitted of allegations of child molestation back in 2005 with a unanimous jury verdict after a trial in Santa Maria, California. The Plaintiffs contend that HBO and the filmmaker failed to contact two other persons identified as victims of Jackson’s abuse who have publicly stated that the allegations that they were abused are false.
Since Michael Jackson died in 2009, his estate cannot sue for defamation as the right to protect one’s reputation is considered a personal right that is not inherited by one’s heirs. Essentially anyone can defame the dead with impunity. This is one reason why scandalous tell all books about celebrities are often published after their subjects die. Furthermore, celebrities have a much higher burden to bear to prevail in a defamation action. They must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, meaning that the defendant intentionally defamed another or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Plaintiffs often find it difficult to prove that a defendant acted with actual malice. So even if Michael Jackson was alive, he might have a difficult time proving he has been defamed.
While the Jackson estate acknowledges it cannot sue for defamation, it pins its case on allegations that HBO violated a non-disparagement clause that was part of a license to air Jackson’s first-ever televised concert performance back in 1992. According to the Plaintiffs, that two-hour television show was HBO’s highest-rated special ever, with approximately 3.7 million U.S. households tuning in.
In the agreement for that show, HBO promised that it “shall not make any disparaging remarks concerning Performer or any of his representatives, agents, or business practices or do any act that may harm or disparage or cause to lower in esteem the reputation or public image of Performer...” This provision was attached as part of a confidentiality exhibit to the license. It is not clear whether a court would deem such a provision to preclude HBO from ever saying anything disparaging of Michael Jackson, including matters unrelated to that concert. The lawsuit alleges that HBO is so desperate to catch up with new competitors like Netflix that it is willing to ignore journalistic standards and violate its agreement with Jackson in order to air compelling content.
Read the lawsuit here.
Disclaimer: The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from the individual author, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.
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