Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal
termination rights, copyright, screenwriters, derivative works
It is probably not quite fraud, though it comes terribly close to it, when motion picture and television production companies convince their writers to part with the rights to their stories when they sign with the companies. Despite contracts that claim the writer has no rights to the resulting script (either because the author has assigned his rights “in perpetuity” or because he has agreed to produce a “workfor hire”), U.S. copyright law provides many authors, perhaps the vast majority of them, with a future right that cannot be lost and can always be regained, irrespective of any written contract to the contrary. This is, of course, the termination right, which provides that approximately thirty-five years after an initial assignment the writer has the right to completely terminate that assignment, even if the assignment contains provisions and qualifications to the contrary.While it is true that the studio will retain rights to the script, if written as a work for hire, and will thus be the “author” of that script, the studio's rights will be limited to the script and any spin-offs produced during the thirty-five year period. The writer can regain the right to create other works based on his original treatment, as well as all related rights connected with the original treatment.This would not be particularly remarkable (because the termination right has been part of our copyright law since 1976) except that motion picture and television studios and production houses have tried mightily to defeat the termination right and to convince writers, their labor organizations, and through them, the public, that writers have no such termination right when they work as “workers for hire.” However, as long as the writer has prepared some kind of written summary or treatment prior to being hired by the studio, such studio claims are false. The rest of this article explains why this is so, how the studios have attempted to foreclose the termination right, the possible limits and implications of the writer's termination right in that context, and the likely economic and social effects of a greater awareness of the termination right by writers and studios.
Michael Henry Davis, The Screenwriter's Indestructible Right to Terminate Her Assignment of Copyright: Once a Story is 'Pitched' a Studio Can Never Obtain All Copyrights in the Story, 18 Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 93 (2000)