small_2406045807The authors of an adapted screenplay may not necessarily hold rights to produce a film based on their script and may need to seek permission from those who wrote its underlying work, a federal court in the northern district of Georgia has ruled. The U.S. district judge held that: plaintiffs Brian Durkins and Craig Richards co-owned a copyright on the screenplay they wrote based on, The Snow White Ladies of the Third Week, an unpublished manuscript about women in a bridge club in a fictional small Southern town; they did not have the right to produce a film based on their adapted screenplay without permission from the manuscript’s authors, Ann Platz and Rachel Hale. [The blog’s editors will post an updated, online link to pertinent case materials when it becomes available; as of now, it can be read on Westlaw, Civil Action File No. 1:10-cv-2262-TCB]

Platz and Hale wrote Snow White Ladies, then after completing the manuscript, they registered it for a U.S. copyright and decided it would make a good movie. Enter the plaintiffs. Platz gave Durkins a copy of the manuscript. He told her he was interested in writing a screenplay from it and was forming a production company with Richards.  The parties drafted an agreement and signed it, including language saying: “Copyright Holders and Writers/Producers shall own the script in full partnership.” They agreed a fee of $8,000 would be paid to Durkins and Richards in installments. Platz and Hale approved all the writing turned in by Durkins and Richards and paid their full fee.

Once the script was done and verified financing was secured, the women stopped communicating with the men, sending them a work-for-hire agreement on their screenplay for them to sign. Durkins and Richards declined. The women soon wrote them to say they 1) rejected the screenplay as unsatisfactory and unmarketable; (2) did not want to use the screenplay for a movie; and (3) were terminating any further relationship. The men filed for a copyright, listing only themselves as screenplay writers and rights owners. They also sued, seeking a declaratory judgment that (1) they owned a valid, enforceable copyright on their screenplay; (2) it did not infringe on any Defendants’ copyrights; and (3) entitling them to market and produce a film from the screenplay without interference from Platz and Hale.

The court granted summary judgment on the men’s contention they held a valid screenplay copyright. To qualify for a copyright separate from the underlying work, the derivative work must (1) not unlawfully use the preexisting material (the underlying material on which the derivative work is based) and (2) be sufficiently original. Because Platz and Hale allowed Durkins and Richards to write their screenplay, these requirements were met. Further, their contributions — including creative judgments to add and to remove scenes and events — satisfied the originality requirement.

The court also granted summary judgment for the men, ruling their screenplay neither infringed on the women’s copyrights and that Durkins and Richards co-owned their work.  The court based its decision on contract provisions saying the parties would “own the script in full partnership.” And because the men were not the women’s employees and there was no written agreement stating it was so, the screenplay was not a work made for hire. The court said it did not infringe on any copyright owned by the Platz and Hale.

The court, however, granted the women summary judgment, finding the men may not market and create a film from their screenplay free from Platz and Hale.  The court said the screenwriter’s copyright in the derivative work was limited to parts contributed by them and there was no implied license to use preexisting material in a movie. As a derivative work, a movie would infringe the copyright Platz and Hale held in their manuscript, unless they grant  permission for its use as a movie. Here the parties’ signed agreement only granted a license for Durkins and Richards to use the manuscript to write a screenplay.

This case is distinguishable from the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Effects Assocs. v. Cohen, where the judges found that a special effects company had granted by implication a filmmaker a nonexclusive license to incorporate footage into his movie.  A nonexclusive license can be granted orally or by implied conduct; it does not need to be in writing because it is not a transfer of copyright ownership.   At the filmmaker’s request, the special effects company created and delivered footage to the filmmaker, thus creating the nonexclusive license without infringing on the special effect maker’s copyright.