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'Friday the 13th' Writer Raises Copyrights From the Dead

When you think "Friday the 13th," you think of Jason Vorhees, stalking victims with a butcher knife from behind a hockey mask. But true fans remember that Jason wasn't the featured mass killer in the film that begat the franchise, and in fact barely appeared in it at all. Those fans may also remember that the film premiered almost 40 years ago.

Both of those facts, though, carry a lot of significance for Victor Miller, who wrote the screenplay in 1979. Miller was finally able to claw back, so to speak, his copyrights to the movie. But how far do those rights extend?

Peaceful Surface of Crystal Lake

"Nearly 40 years ago," U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill's opinion in the case begins, "a screenplay was written about Camp Crystal Lake. 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."

While Miller sold the rights to his screenplay for $9,282 in 1979, the Copyright Act (passed in 1978) gave writers the ability to terminate grants of their copyright interests and reclaim their copyrights thirty-five years after they first transferred their rights. Miller intended to reclaim the copyright to "Friday the 13th," but the studios who currently owned those interests, Horror, Inc. and Manny Company, sued the screenwriter, claiming Miller was an employee when he prepared the screenplay, and thus never held authorship rights in the work.

Back From the Dead?

The opinion, issued on the un-scary Friday the 28th, has none of the same tension as the film, and really comes down to whether Miller was an employee or an independent contractor when he wrote the screenplay. The studios, of course, argued that the film has always been theirs because Miller was a for-hire employee. But Underhill was not convinced:

Manny did not directly provide Miller with any traditional employee benefits (e.g., vacation pay or plans, health care plans, insurance plans, pension plans) during his brief period of work on the treatment and screenplay ... Manny also paid Miller the lump sum payments due to him under the agreement without any deductions or withholding for taxes, Social Security or Medicare.

Finding that Miller was an independent contractor at the time, Underhill granted Miller sole copyright in the "Friday the 13th" screenplay. But what about his rights to Jason? "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," Underhill wrote:

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. Miller's termination notices apply only to the copyright in the screenplay for the first film, and did not purport to terminate a separate copyright in the adult Jason character present in later films. Adjudication of the status of any copyright in the adult Jason character will have to await a ripe dispute with respect to that issue.

I guess we'll just have to wait for the sequel ...

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