Almost forty years after the film’s release, the scriptwriter of the original 1980 version of horror classic Friday the 13th is attempting to reclaim his rights in his treatment and the film’s screenplay. An impending decision in the United States could lead to rights in the franchise being split, resulting in the prospect of films in the series being released without the iconic character of Jason.
If the screenwriter’s claim is successful, it could inspire more widespread awareness and potential use of the termination mechanism under the United States Copyright Act 1976, which allows writers to terminate their grant of copyright 35 years after the event. This could lead to a change in control over the rights in historic films and to whom they are licensed, or even to a situation where separate films within the same franchise are exploited by writers and producers.
Victor Miller, the sole credited writer on Friday the 13th, has filed a summary judgment motion at a Connecticut federal court to terminate his grant of copyright to the film’s producers. This statutory right, for an author or their heirs to reclaim ownership of their copyright works, stems from the United States Copyright Act of 1976.
Miller’s claim is being fiercely contested by the successors to the original company who produced Friday the 13th. The film’s producer, Sean Cunningham, contends that the screenplay was a work made for hire in the course of Miller’s employment with Cunningham’s company, which would scupper Miller’s claim to ownership of the film as Cunningham’s company would be the statutory author. Further, Cunningham asserts that it was he who made all creative decisions involving the project, including the initial idea to make a horror film in the style of John Carpenter’s Halloween, as well as obtaining financing for the film. According to Cunningham he worked collaboratively with Miller on the development of the treatment into the final film and therefore was effectively a co-author.
The current rights holders, Horror, Inc. and Manny Company, a successor to Cunningham’s original production company, have filed their own motion for summary judgment, citing along with the above points that Miller was and is a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which negotiates with employers on behalf of its members. This is crucial as, according to the companies’ lawyers, if Miller was an employee pursuant to the WGA’s collective bargaining agreement, he does not have the statutory right to terminate the assignment of his copyright in the film.
Miller’s counter-argument on this front is that Miller worked as a freelancer, writing the script at times of his own choosing over a two month period. During this time, he claims to have had little supervision, with only ‘minor’ revisions to his script. Furthermore, Miller contends that he could not have been an employee, as he did not receive any employee benefits from the producers such as health insurance, paid leave or pension. Miller further asserts that he did not receive the same remuneration from the film franchise as the producers, despite his sizeable contribution.
However, Miller is only seeking to recover the copyright to his original treatment for the film and the screenplay. This would not prevent the ongoing exploitation of the film or its numerous sequels, only new derivative works after the effective termination date of his original assignment, which would be 2018. In addition, as the United States Copyright Act does not apply abroad, the foreign rights to the screenplay will remain with the production companies to exploit as they wish.
Crucially for the future of the franchise, it is agreed by the parties that Miller did not create the title ‘Friday the 13th’, nor did he create the iconic look of Jason, wearing a hockey mask and wielding a machete. In the original Miller-penned film, Jason was a character who died as a young boy and his mother was the killer. It was only in the film’s sequel, Friday the 13th Part 2, that Jason became the franchise’s principal villain.
There are also limitation arguments on both sides: the producers’ attorneys argue that Miller’s claim for ownership is time-barred, as Miller knew in 1979 that Cunningham had asserted ownership of the screenplay, and therefore Miller only had three years to bring a claim. Conversely, Miller’s lawyers contest that Cunningham’s claim to have co-authored the film is also barred by the three year statute of limitations, given that Miller is and was the sole credited writer of the film.
It is foreseeable that the result of this dispute will see the Friday the 13th franchise becoming divided, with Miller controlling future U.S. productions based on his original screenplay, and Horror, Inc. and Manny Company controlling films outside of the territory featuring the character of Jason as he is most famously known.
Other classic films could suffer the same fate, leading to complex and messy rights situations which may seriously hamper the effective exploitation of the affected films. Though there is no equivalent right in U.K. law, the exercise of copyright termination could have an international impact to the extent that two competing films in the same franchise may have a negative effect on one another’s financial success.
As with the similar dispute between the estate of Jack Kirby and Marvel, production companies will hope the claim settles in order that franchises like that of Friday the 13th may remain intact.