Could Reddit Make Its Own 'Rome, Sweet Rome' And Compete With Warner Bros.?

from the legal-conundrums dept

We recently wrote about the initially cool, but eventually frustrating, story of author James Erwin, who turned a comment he made on a Reddit story into a movie deal with Warner Bros. The frustrating part came out of the news that Erwin mentioned in an interview that due to the “locked-down IP rights” common in the movie industry, he couldn’t spend more time on Reddit with the community that built up around the “Rome, Sweet Rome” story.

Now, some in our comments questioned whether Erwin even had the right to grant such an exclusive license to Warner Bros., noting both that the community helped develop part of the story and that Reddit’s terms might forbid it. Eriq Gardner, at THREsq, decided to dig into the legal question, and suggests that it’s entirely possible that Warner Bros. could not have exclusively licensed the story, and in theory anyone else could try to get the same rights from Reddit itself.

Part of it is the boilerplate language in Reddit’s terms:

“you agree that by posting messages, uploading files, inputting data, or engaging in any other form of communication with or through the Website, you grant us a royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, enhance, transmit, distribute, publicly perform, display, or sublicense any such communication in any medium (now in existence or hereinafter developed) and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, and to authorize others to do so.”

This really is boilerplate. Look at almost any modern user-generated content platform and you’ll see similar terms. But, at the very least here, it suggests that while Erwin could offer up some rights to WB, he cannot grant them exclusively. In fact, Reddit itself could make the same movie based on this… or it could separately license the story to a competing studio. It seems unlikely that they would do that, but it certainly seems possible.

Additionally, there are still some questions about whether or not Erwin could have licensed parts of the story that were developed by others:

although Erwin undoubtedly did much of the hard work in crafting the story himself, during the genesis of “Rome, Sweet Rome,” some of Reddit’s other users made suggestions to his work that may ultimately shape the final story.

Those concepts, if they are copyrightable, might not be Erwin’s to exclusively license.

Either way, while I doubt it will happen, it certainly would be interesting and amusing to see what would happen if Reddit tried to license the same rights to a competing studio.

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Comments on “Could Reddit Make Its Own 'Rome, Sweet Rome' And Compete With Warner Bros.?”

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33 Comments
pegr (profile) says:

Wait just a sec...

But Mike, you’ve taught us over the years that ideas are not copyrightable, just creative expressions of those ideas. Regardless of where the ideas came from, couldn’t WB just write to the plot and be just fine? Yes, they would not have exclusivity, but then again, no one ever does (over the idea, not the expression).

Da Wind Done Gone. 😉

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Wait just a sec...

Here are a couple recent examples that deal with both plot and characters:

http://www.yalelawtech.org/wp-content/uploads/harrypottercase.pdf

http://openjurist.org/996/f2d/1366/twin-peaks-productions-inc-v-publications-international-ltd-n-usa

Of course, the most famous language on the matter is from Judge Learned hand, way back in 1931: “It is of course essential to any protection of literary property … that the right cannot be limited literally to the text, else a plagiarist would escape by immaterial variations.” Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., 45 F.2d 119, 121 (2d Cir. 1930), cert. denied, 282 U.S. 902 (1931).

Anonymous Coward says:

I think that this sort of thing will be one of the many undoing points of social media. Reddit claiming rights is just boilerplate, but it is more than enough for them to move forward.

If the studio signed an exclusive contract for material that is no exclusive, the contract may be null and void. Alternately, Reddit can claim their ownership and demand a part of the pie, and block things until they get their way.

More than likely, they will stay out of the way for now, and once the movie is made and becomes a success, a wise lawyer will “help” reddit to collect the millions of damages they suffered.

It will be another nail in the coffin for “social media”.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

You'll never see this movie.

Movies don’t get made without insurance, and nobody will get insurance unless the underlying rights are sound, so no other movies will get made while Warner holds the rights.

However, this might be the reason Warner Brothers never makes the film either – they may never be able to guarantee the rights enough to satisfy the insurance companies. Conde Nast, which owns Reddit, would more than likely sue Warner Brothers rather than attempt to make its own film, although I’d really love to see what a crowd-sourced movie from Reddit was like, and I’d really love for Reddit to get all the profits. It’s just ain’t gonna happen.

Also know that Warner Brothers owns the rights to thousands of stories that will never become movies. They buy rights all the time, develop them sometimes for years, and then abandon them. Some just never work as movies, many projects are shut down when a new boss is hired, and sometimes rights are bought just so nobody else will make the movie, esp. if the studio has a similar project in the works. I’ll be amazed if Rome Sweet Rome ever gets made.

pegr (profile) says:

Re: You'll never see this movie.

What rights are you referring to exactly?
Copyright? Nope, they will write their own story.
The idea? Nope, not copyrightable.
Patent? Trade secret? Nope, for obvious reasons.

Unless they use the actual words posted on reddit, reddit has nothing to say about any work based on this idea. Why don’t more people understand copyright?

fogbugzd (profile) says:

Re: Re: You'll never see this movie.

>>Unless they use the actual words posted on reddit, reddit has nothing to say about any work based on this idea. Why don’t more people understand copyright?

Your post is correct. Unless they use the exact words from the Reddit material they are probably not violating copyright. That is why I mentioned “imaginary” rights. The IP lobby has been telling themselves lies about copyright for so long that they seem to forget what the law actually says and doesn’t say. There is also just enough terrible case law (can you say “The Wind Done Gone?”) trying to expand copyright beyond the statute that lawyers have some tiny little hooks that they can base a case on. The big media companies have gone around for years saying that copyright covers things that it doesn’t, and now they often believe that it actually does cover things like “story rights.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: You'll never see this movie.

“Unless they use the actual words posted on reddit, reddit has nothing to say about any work based on this idea.”

I think you’re right in this case, because reddit has no exclusive rights, but not for the reasons you think.

“Why don’t more people understand copyright?”

My thoughts exactly.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: You'll never see this movie.

They can sue on the grounds that they have some rights to any material that was posted on Reddit, and Warner Brothers will settle for a nice fee. In fact, Warners will probably negotiate a fee before any court action is taken, just to clear things up. It’s easier and they can afford it. Then it’s up to the Reddit users that contributed to sue to claim ownership over their contributions, which probably won’t get very far.

And if anyone thinks they have to use the actual words, they’re wrong. What would stop them from doing a movie about a young magician named Barry Snotter? Why else would someone be negotiating the rights if they weren’t needed?

I’m wondering if there are any other films that were freely written by multiple contributors and how that worked out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: You'll never see this movie.

“some rights” doesn’t mean exclusive rights.

I have “some rights” to walk on the sidewalk, but that doesn’t give me any claim to prevent you from doing the same.

However, you may be right that, if Warner thinks its got something good, they might pay Reddit to assign whatever rights it might have to Warner.

anonymous says:

if it were ever agreed that Reddit should be paid, i wonder how long it would take for them to actually get any money? i seem to remember something only a couple of weeks ago about a Star Wars actor, let alone another company, not receiving a dime yet. plus, there is always the ‘Hollywood Accounting’ as well, by which no movie ever makes any profit!

Anonymous Coward says:

Just a heads up with what’s going on over at reddit:

With over 21,000 ‘upvotes’:
http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/ljf4e/dear_reddit_i_do_not_think_that_ideas_that_are/

One of the most popular responses is from the system admin, alienth, who says:

I believe one of the reasons for that is that we couldn’t technically host your comments as you could sue reddit for infringement if some type of usage agreement wasn’t in place. I am not a lawyer, but I’ll ping the lawyers to check.
We’re actually in the process of revamping the user-agreement, as it contains several clauses which aren’t really relevant to us.

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