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Copyright, Screenwriting, and Filmmaking Agreements: Insights and Best Practices

True or False

1. In order for a copyright to exist in a work, the creator needs to register their work with the Copyright Office.

2. It is standard for a major studio to engage a screenwriter on a work-for-hire basis and, therefore, own the copyright to such screenwriter’s work without the screenwriter having any copyright in such work.

3. If the copyright to a work expires in the United States, the work automatically goes into the public domain in every other country.

4. If a producer acquires the rights to a magazine article prominently featuring real life people, the producer automatically controls all life story rights necessary to produce a movie based on the article.

5. If a screenwriter receives sole or shared screenplay credit upon final credit determination by the WGA, that screenwriter will automatically qualify to be entitled to passive payments for derivative productions.

6. If a screenwriter receives sole or shared screenplay credit upon final credit determination by the WGA, that screenwriter will automatically qualify to have the right of first opportunity to negotiate for derivative productions

7. A major studio customarily pays a screenwriter compensation without the producer who originated the project with the studio first being required sign a long-form producing services agreement.

8. It is customary for a screenwriter to be entitled to a credit bonus for receiving “story by” credit.

9. If a producer obtains errors and omission insurance for their movie based on a true story, a producer no longer needs to secure any life story rights.

10. Even if a director controls the final cut, it is customary for the studio to nevertheless have the right to cut the movie.  

If you produce a documentary, the fair use doctrine will always protect your production against copyright infringement claims, but not defamation claims.

11. When a major studio options the rights to a book, the studio will customarily control the exclusive rights to such work before paying the author the purchase price.

12. After the studio pays an author the purchase price to acquire all rights to a book, customarily the studio does pay the author other compensation for derivative productions.

13. If intimate details of a real life person are prominently featured in an article published worldwide, that person will typically have no claim for an invasion of right to privacy if that article is adapted into a movie.

Short Answer

14. A screenwriter will typically be paid significantly more than even an extremely successful and accomplished director is paid during the development phase of a movie.

List three fundamental differences between a rights acquisition agreement and a screenwriter services agreement.

List three benefits of a producer entering into a rights acquisition agreement instead of a shopping agreement.

List one fundamental reason why a screenwriter may be entitled to passive payments for subsequent productions and not the first opportunity to negotiate to provide screenwriting services.

List one fundamental reason why a screenwriter may be entitled to the first opportunity to negotiate to provide screenwriting services for subsequent productions and not passive payments in connection with subsequent productions.

List two legal claims a producer is seeking to avoid by commissioning an annotated screenplay.

List one fundamental difference between a grant of life story rights and a release as to such life story rights.

The movie you are producing is being directed by someone who has final cut.  List four reasons why this director may lose final cut.

If a producer wanted to pay bonuses to a book author, list one fundamental reason why best-seller bonuses may be preferred over set-up, production, box office and/or award bonuses.

If a producer wanted to option a spec script and hire the same writer to perform writing services, should more compensation be allocated to the purchase price for the spec script or the credit bonus?  List one fundamental reason for your answer.

What is one fundamental difference between a director having designation rights and a director having a customary mutual approval right?

List five important elements of a director agreement to a producer and explain why.

Watch the clip in the following link:

List five creative elements featured on screen that would customarily require agreements (excluding agreements with actors and screenwriters). 

For three of those elements, list one legal concept necessitating clearance of such element. 

For one element you believe would not require an agreement, list at least one potential legal defense a producer would have for determining such an agreement is unnecessary.

You would like to produce a movie based on a book by author Harlan Goldberg, who is a long-reigning late-night talk host on a major U.S. network.  The book is partially autobiographical and about Harlan’s college years when he was in a relationship with a married woman named Marie and also had two roommates named Chuck and Phillip who robbed banks for fun until Chuck got killed during a robbery. What rights should you obtain? Why? What rights do you think you don’t need to obtain? Why? What problems might arise in trying to obtain such rights and how would you suggest such problems be addressed? What should you do if you can’t get the rights you want? 

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