Killer Suit for “Friday the 13th”

October 30, 2018

Just like the villain of the Friday the 13th franchise, the litigation to determine his ownership just can’t be killed. Despite a summary judgment ruling in the case at the end of September 2018, a notice of appeal was filed on October 18, 2018 in the Federal District Court of Connecticut, reviving the dispute in the 2nd Circuit. The heart of the controversy begins with the repudiation of an employment and rights agreement that was in place since the creation of the franchise. The plaintiffs, Horror Inc. and Manny Company brought suit to obtain declaratory relief of the ownership of the franchise in addition to claims against the original writer, Victor Miller (“Miller”) for breach of an employment agreement and slander.

Before the original film’s 1980 release, Sean Cunningham was inspired by the success of the Halloween horror film franchise to create his own horror film franchise. Through Manny Company he hired Miller, with whom he had previously worked on other projects to create a screenplay of his vision. An employment agreement was signed on June 4, 1979 to complete a screenplay for a (then titled) Friday 13 which included flat payments, and in conjunction with the Writer’s Guild of America Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement, a continuing but undisclosed residual for Miller. Through Miller’s action it became clear he sought to end the existing arrangement and recapture his copyright.

Early in 2016 Miller issued a Notice of Termination for the copyright of Friday the 13th. Horror, Inc, as successor owners brought in August 2016 suit claiming the Notice of Termination was false and without basis in part because Miller was an employee hired to create the script. Horror Inc. further claims that not only were Miller’s actions a breach of the ongoing employment agreement but they have also caused them to be unable to utilize the copyright given the surrounding confusion of ownership.

At the end of September 2018, the court made it clear they disagree with Horror Inc’s contentions by granting Miller’s motion to dismiss. An important aspect of the Copyright Act is that it grants original creators the ability to terminate a copyright interest beginning 35 years after initially transferring them, with a policy goal of allowing original creators to re-capture a work they could not anticipate having such long-term success. This was the procedure Miller was pursuing in 2016 with his notice of termination. An original creator’s ability to terminate a copyright interest is not permitted when it involves works by an employee. This is precisely why Horror Inc.’s original complaint argues so fervently for a determination that Miller was an employee. What Horror Inc. failed to include in their complaint was the full analysis to determine whether an individual is an employee.

In ruling on the motion to dismiss, the court applies the full analysis demanded for Copyright Act cases created by the U.S. Supreme Court in Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730. The test they created is closer to one of agency law with a loose test of at least 13 non-exclusive factors. The court in this case analyzed a number of these factors, but seemed to pay particular attention to the factors of the hiring party’s right to control the manner and means by which the product was accomplished, the skill required, the provision of employee benefits, tax treatment, and the right to assign additional projects to hired party. It was because of these factors and others that the court determined that Miller was not actually an employee at the time he created Friday the 13th so his attempt to terminate Horror Inc.’s rights to the copyright was valid, thus leaving Miller the sole owner of Friday the 13th. That is, of course, dependent on the outcome of the appeal. Nevertheless, given the continued popularity of 80’s franchises and the relatively short amount of time between their creation and passage of the Copyright Act, we may see other writers of popular film franchises seek to reclaim their works.

Image Source: REUTERS

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