Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick

Why Buy Movie Rights From Newspapers?

from the misunderstanding-copyrights? dept

It's no secret that many people have trouble understanding intellectual property law. It's quite common for us to see situations where people get mixed up about the differences between patents, trademarks and copyrights. What it usually comes down to, though, are people who want to claim ownership over as much as they can. With patents, we see this in obvious claims being granted. With trademarks, it's often about companies wanting to believe they have complete control over the use of their brand -- rather than just in situations where it would cause confusion. With copyrights, it's most often seen in attempts to copyright facts. Sometimes, people just like to claim control for the hell of it -- such as the recent case accusing Dan Brown of "stealing" the idea for his novel from a work of discredited non-fiction. Copyright is just designed to protect the specific work -- not the idea behind it. It's certainly not designed to give anyone ownership of facts. With that in mind, Tim Wu (guest blogging at Larry Lessig's site) is wondering why a movie studio would purchase the "rights" to a particular news story. Apparently, it happens all the time -- though, as Wu points out, the newspaper has no real ownership over the story, just the specific writeup they did. The facts of the story are facts -- and could be used by anyone to create a movie without having to pay the newspaper. Is it just a case of the movie studios misunderstanding copyrights? Wu has a few ideas, but is looking for more suggestions. His idea is that it's not particularly expensive and it could help prevent a bogus lawsuit (even if that lawsuit would get thrown out). His second thought was that it's a signaling method. Studios may use the purchase of "rights" to let other studios know that they're making a film based on that story, and others should stay away. The movie studios themselves would probably claim that it's to demonstrate how much they support intellectual property -- but many would suggest the idea of Hollywood doing much on moral grounds seems unlikely. Anyone else have any suggestions?

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    nonuser, May 4th, 2006 @ 4:20am

    talking point for agents

    Maybe it's routine for agents doing due diligence to demand whether the studio has acquired all the necessary rights before signing on to the film. In this case, they may not have, since the band threatened to sue, but at least they could say they acquired something.

    It's also a pity the lawyers made them cut the scene with the custom volume control that went to 11.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Comboman, May 4th, 2006 @ 5:18am

    Could it be a fake news story?

    Maybe the news story is actually a work of fiction, in which case buying the rights would be required to make a movie from it (kinda like the way sports shows can report the results of sporting events they don't have the rights to show, but can report on professional wrestling since it's not a real sport). There have been a couple of high-profile cases in the last couple of years (involving the New York Times IIRC) where "news" stories were partially or completely fabricated by the reporter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    keefer55, May 4th, 2006 @ 5:26am

    Just think how rich

    you'd be if you held the copyright to the WMD story. I wonder how much Judy Miller got for the rights?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    lar3ry, May 4th, 2006 @ 6:43am

    Actually, it's understandable

    Studios purchase the rights to cover their asses.

    In addition, there are other bits to be gained. Certain news publications present some unique perspectives, as can be seen from the old Fisher/Buttafucco story (there are at least three sides to the story: Amy's, Joey's, and his wife's). Different movie studios can purchase the "news" story from various sources and can come up with completely different stories.

    I think it's more of a perpetuation of the Great Media Hype that comes along with our nation's attention deficit disorder (Who remembers Amy Fisher nowadays?). Make the movie, make it quickly to cash in on the notoriety, and reap in the rewards.

    Studios don't really mind if there is competition for a particular story. They'll just say that theirs is the first to come out, theirs is the Definitive Version of the story, or they'll tell the movie goers see both/all of the versions to make their own decision.

    It was obvious that 9/11 was going to be made into a movie. I'd be surprised if the "Missing White Student in the Carribean" story doesn't get made pretty soon, as Fox "News" has been hawking that one for quite a while.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    O. Wells, May 4th, 2006 @ 6:54am

    Movie Rights

    The idea is freely used. The facts are freely used. But the rights give the studio the freedom to use every literal line in the story and in many cases, access to the reporters's notes; the rights give the studio the right to use the structure of the story without fear of a suit. Lastly, in some cases (probably not in the case of NYT, but frequently in the case of rags like the Inquirer), the newspaper is really selling much more than the rights to the story itself -- some of these papers buy the literary and movie rights from the subjects of the story, as happened when Norman Mailer had to buy rights from the Inquirer to write the Executioner's Song.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Mike, May 4th, 2006 @ 6:55am


    From what I gather from my friends who actually know Tim, in this example (Rock Star), they would've had to buy the rights from the Times because of the fact that the majority of their "facts" about Tim Owens life and the story they used for the movie were completely fictional.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Hersh, May 4th, 2006 @ 10:34am

    They might be doing it for the free publicity. Maybe it's an effective way to get press about a project, and at the same time to bolster it's "authenticity".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    |333173|3|_||3, May 4th, 2006 @ 5:41pm

    A Bribe?

    The payment could in part be a bribe, in order that the NYT gives a fovourable review when the film comes out (or so that if there is a competeing film the more faveourable review goes to that version). With a major paper like the NYT this would be less likely to be sucessfull than some squalid little rag.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Steve Payne, Apr 20th, 2009 @ 1:23pm

    movie rights

    Our increasingly legal world. In our current state of legal libel studios and anyone else wanting to use all or part of any written idea must have purchased clearances and copyrights to specific material. As a writer producer I have to purchase E&O insurance on any project I create this insurance protects me against lawsuits. In addition as one other writer added earlier any material pertaining to the story can be included allowing access to background and story material that would be pertinent to a screenplay based on the original story. Any reputable production company or motion picture financing company will not touch a project until proof of all legal righs have been furnished. In the end it's just good business.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Ruvym, Apr 13th, 2012 @ 10:59am

    Scaring People

    Companies love to send cease & desist letters. Perhaps a studio buys the rights in order to show that they "own" something to some small-time shlub who decides to work with the same story/idea. Larger companies and people with copyright know-how might not be scared off by studio claims of ownership, but I can imagine this working as intimidation of people who don't understand the nuances of the law.

    That's the nature of cease and desist letters - they announce the "ownership" of something and declare a private conclusion with regard to someone else's activities, just to get them to stop. The veracity of cease and desist claims that chill creative expression or otherwise legitimate use of IP, very often do not get tested.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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