Author Sues Production Company For Copyright Infringement For Changing The Script It Optioned From Him

from the moral-rights-through-contract dept

While significant parts of the rest of the world include a “moral rights” component to copyright (which covers things like proper attribution), the US has always avoided it — even though it’s supposedly required by the Berne Convention, of which the US is a participant. The US has mainly gotten around this because it’s the US and it ignores international agreements when it wants to — but also because it put in a tiny bit of moral rights in extremely limited circumstances that are so rare you’ll almost never, ever hear about them. However, it does appear that some are trying to sneak in a form of moral rights via contract.

Copycense points us to the news of a writer, Matthew Jones, who is suing the people who optioned his screenplay (which was based on his own novel, Boot Tracks) for changing the screenplay without his permission. He apparently wrote into the contract that such changes could not be made without his permission — and yet the screenplay was changed to help get funding. There’s an obvious contractual breach in there, but Jones is also claiming copyright infringement, suggesting that, by breaking the agreement, they were also creating an unauthorized derivative work. In this case, it’s a little more confusing, because there’s some question as to when the producer and director actually exercised the option to buy the screenplay/make the film. Either way, it may make for an interesting case and it makes me wonder if we’ll start to see more efforts by content creators to enforce such moral-like rights via contract.

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Comments on “Author Sues Production Company For Copyright Infringement For Changing The Script It Optioned From Him”

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16 Comments
ike says:

Re: Makes sense

It’s not exactly the same.

If the play was optioned, then the two entities entered into a contract.

When distributing GPLed software, it’s always not clear that the two parties entered a contract. If they didn’t, it’s clearly copyright infringement and not a contract violation. If they did, it could be both.

the FSF does not tell the court “they violated the licence agreement”

Do you have anything to back this up?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Makes sense

the FSF does not tell the court “they violated the licence agreement”

Do you have anything to back this up?

See http://www.fsf.org/licensing/complaint-2008-12-11.pdf for an example. The first and only count (Copyright Infringement) starts on page 12.

It basically comes down to ‘defendant violated our copyright’. The only responses are: 1) show copyright not held by plaintiff; 2) show works are not copyrightable or no longer under copyright; 3) show that you have a license.

Pseudonym (profile) says:

Re: Re: Makes sense

Actually, it is clear in the text of the GPL. It says that it’s not an agreement, since the user didn’t sign anything. But nothing else gives you permission to use the software. Hence, violating the GPL is not a contract violation, it’s a simple copyright violation.

The same thing is going on here, except that it’s also a contract violation.

PaulT (profile) says:

This seems a little strange to me. Anyone who knows anything about the film production process will know that scripts get changed all the time. It might be for budgetary reasons, issues with shooting conditions on set, improvisation by actors, even censorship or editing issues in post production. Nobody with any knowledge of how films are funded and made could ever expect the finished film to be a direct transposing of the script to screen.

If the clause was written into the contract, then I suppose Jones has a case. It’s an unrealistic clause that’s got no business being there, but it’s a breach of contract if it was. But, Jones may find it hard to get his work optioned in the future if he’s going to sue people for doing the necessary steps to obtain funding.

Ed C. says:

Re: Re:

No, it would have been unreasonable to prohibit them from making any changes. He obviously expected them to make changes, he merely reserved the option to look at them first. Doing this before production isn’t a problem. Even during production, updated pages are always circulated to a select group of people who have influence and veto power over script changes. Adding the author into this circle would have been trivial.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, that makes slightly more sense, although the copyright claim seems even more strange in that light. Also, it raises the question of control – i.e. would he have had final approval on any changes or would the producer/director/whoever have been able to override him? Simply showing the changes would have been irrelevant if the producer could veto him.

Sorry if any of this is answered in the document above, I can’t read it at the moment. I just think that unless there’s something I’m not getting (quite possible), then involving the courts seems a rather rash move.

Chris Brand says:

Copyrights and contracts

Copyright law in general seems to have all sorts of issues with contracts. The two areas interact so closely and in such strange ways, that things get very complex very quickly. Parts of copyright law explicitly override contracts (e.g. the reversion of copyrights thing), and copyright laws frequently include parts that cannot be overridden by contracts (e.g. moral rights in many countries), and of course contracts frequently override (or attempt to override) copyright law (e.g. “this is a work-for-hire”, or “by installing this software you agree that you have no fair use rights”).

The whole thing is a complete mess. Lucky lawyers.

Anonymous Coward says:

The writer AND PRODUCERS negotiated an agreement/contract that prohibited the producers from modifying the writer’s work without his approval. Deadcenter to the point, the producers negotiated and AGREED to these terms. So industry wide-standards for demeaning the contributions of a writer (see the opening scene of R. Altman’s “The Player”)are not relevant here. The producers violated an albeit unusual, and yet it seems likely unusually clear, component of the agreement. If the producers made derivative works not only without the writer’s permission, but in deliberate noncompliance with their agreement not to alter the writer’s work without his permission…for chrissakes!…how can anyone argue these producers did not hijack his copyrighted work. This conflict does not fall in the showdowy interpretation of moral rights in Amnerica, or even standard practices (see Hollywood’s infamous “using industry standard accounting” contract terms if you wanna get morally indignant), it is a breach of contract regarding copyrighted property. The producers were, and still are, free to write their own damn scripts; they just can’t legally (or morally) rewrite the script of the guy they promised to give/let retain total rewrite control.

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