Friday the 13th Copyright Dispute – Is the Franchise Dead?

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Hi, I’m Danny Karon, your Lovable Lawyer, here with your quick “slash” of legal wellness. Well, it’s Friday the 13th so let’s discuss something scary – copyright law. As most horror fans know, the Friday the 13th franchise has been held up for years in a legal battle between screenwriter Victor Miller and director Sean Cunningham. Here’s the story. In 1979, Cunningham’s production company hired Miller to write the screenplay for the original Friday the 13th movie. Miller signed an employment agreement with Cunningham that did not expressly provide that his screenplay would be a work made for hire, which means a work created while on the job or by an independent contractor hired to create it. This distinction is really important because under the Copyright Act, copyrightable work is owned by the artist who created it unless the artist sells the copyright or their work was made for hire.

So, in 2016, Miller sought to terminate his copyright grant to Cunningham. Cunningham didn’t like it so he sued to keep it. Two years later, a Federal Judge ruled that Miller was the sole owner of the original screenplay in the U.S. Remember the U.S. part because the Copyright Act’s termination right allows authors to regain rights to works they signed over to a company. Cunningham appealed the ruling, insisting that Miller wrote the screenplay as a work for hire. Therefore, he should never have been able to gain rights to the screenplay to begin with. But the appellate court affirmed the lower court ruling that Miller was an independent contractor when he wrote the screenplay and was therefore entitled to authorship rights. That’s the story. Phew, it’s a long one. There’s a lot of stuff, but it’s great for Miller. That doesn’t mean he’s free to take the franchise and do whatever he wants with it. For starters, he has only U.S. rights. What’s more, he only owns the original screenplay, which means he doesn’t own the character of adult Jason Voorhees, he doesn’t own even the iconic hockey mask. That wasn’t in the first film or the sequel. In other words, Miller can only use elements from the original Friday the 13th. So, what can he do? Well, I guess he can make a prequel, Jason the early years. But if he did, what studio would want to make a movie that it can’t distribute worldwide? Well, I don’t know what lurks around the corner but keep a lookout because Jason has a way of coming back to get you.

If you’d like to learn more about legal wellness, please subscribe to my YouTube channel or visit me at Until next time, I’m Jason, I mean Danny Karon, your Lovable Lawyer.

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