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'Friday the 13th' Writer Can Claw Back Copyright

By William Vogeler, Esq. on October 03, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Everybody has nightmares, but some people are really good at writing about them.

Judge Stefan Underhill gave it a try. In Horror, Inc. v. Miller, he put some effort into writing about the famous "Friday the 13th" horror film.

The backstory started out with a handshake deal between the author and a producer. In the end, it turned into a nightmare for a company that exploited the work.

The judge told the legal tale with some dramatic flare. At least he didn't start out with a dark and stormy night.

"Nearly 40 years ago, a screenplay was written about Camp Crystal Lake," he began. "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."

It was a decent set-up by a man in a black robe who was about to bring the ax down on one of the parties. In 1979, the Manny Company paid Victor Miller $9,282 for the screenplay.

The slasher movie went on to gross nearly $40 million in the United States. Under the Copyright Act, the judge said, Miller had the right to claw back his screenplay.

Termination Right

The Copyright Act grants authors the right to reclaim copyrights they sell after 35 years. The Manny Company and Horror Inc. argued that Miller forfeited his rights as a for-hire employee and union member.

But Underhill said the writer was an independent contractor who supplied his own tools, set his own hours and worked outside the company property.

Over the years, Miller has secured more than $227,000 to settle his claims. In this case, he won a judgment that he is the sole author of the film and that he terminated the companies' rights.

The judge declined to rule on claims to the character Jason, a hockey-masked monster that rises out of the lake. That will be up to a litigation sequel.

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