On Friday, September 28th, U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill of the District of Connecticut issued a ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment in a copyright case involving the cult horror film Friday the 13th. Judge Underhill’s ruling determined that Victor Miller, the screenwriter who wrote the script for the movie, did not produce the script as a work made for hire, thus preserving his ability to claim ownership of the copyright for the script.
This case stems back to a complaint for declaratory judgment filed in August 2016 by plaintiffs Manny Company and Horror Inc., the successor to the film rights which were originally negotiated between Miller and Manny’s owner Sean Cunningham, the producer of Friday the 13th. Prior to the filing for declaratory judgment, Miller had served Manny and Horror with a series of termination notices seeking to terminate the grant of Miller’s copyrights regarding the screenplay. Manny and Horror filed the complaint seeking a declaration that the script was a work for hire under the terms of the Copyright Act of 1976, invalidating Miller’s copyright claim under the termination notices. Miller filed a counterclaim in November 2016 seeking a declaration that the script was not a work made for hire.
“This case presents complicated and interesting questions of authorship and ownership of the copyright in the screenplay for the well-known, original Friday the 13th movie,” Judge Underhill’s ruling reads. Under the Copyright Act, a writer’s contributions may be considered a work made for hire if the writer completed the work as an employee or if the writer completed the work as an independent contractor under the terms of a written agreement which specifically states that the work is considered to be made for hire. Though there was an agreement drawn up between Miller and Manny for the completion of the script, that agreement didn’t expressly state that the script was a work for hire nor did it contain any express agreement on copyright matters.
Horror and Manny had argued to the court that Miller was Manny’s employee, and not an independent contractor, because Miller was a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) labor union and Manny was a WGA collective bargaining agreement signatory company. Judge Underhill noted that this wasn’t the traditional test for determining if a hired party is an employee as laid out in 1989 by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid (CCNV). Horror and Manny rejected the CCNV test, arguing that it only applies to situations where an individual’s employment status is unclear. Instead, they argued that labor law requires that Miller be considered Manny’s employee under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which uses the same definition of “employee” as the Copyright Act.
Judge Underhill, however, found that labor law doesn’t provide grounds for displacing the CCNV analysis, adding that the Supreme Court’s decision in that case used “sweeping language suggesting the general applicability of its agency law analysis… In fact, in holding that an individual’s potential ‘employee’ status for the purposes of the Copyright Act should be determined pursuant to agency law, the Court expressly distinguished the use of agency law under the Copyright Act from the broader definition of ‘employee’ once used under labor law.”
Further, Judge Underhill found that labor law doesn’t require that Miller be considered Manny’s employee even if that door was left open by CCNV. Horror and Manny had argued that the NLRA only gives “employees” with the right to organize or join labor unions, thus Miller, a WGA member, was the employee of Manny, a signatory to the WGA collective bargaining agreement. Rather than being grounded in case law, Judge Underhill found that Horror and Manny’s arguments “seemingly relies instead on an appeal to common sense notions of the many terms of art that are at issue.” Applying the factors in the CCNV test, Judge Underhill found that Miller was an independent contractor; factors that weighed heavily in the decision included Miller’s performance of skilled work, his lack of employee benefits, the fact that he wasn’t treated as an employee for tax purposes and the fact that Manny’s engagement of Miller didn’t provide Manny the right to assign additional projects.
Miller’s lead counsel representing him in this case was Marc Toberoff, founder of Toberoff & Associates and an intellectual property lawyer who has represented clients such as the co-creators of Superman as well as famed comic book artist Jack Kirby, the creator of Fantastic Four and X-Men fame. Toberoff offered the following statement regarding the recent ruling in this case:
“I think that Judge Underhill’s decision is extremely well reasoned, thorough and is firmly based on binding Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent. For these reasons, I think the chances of reversal by the other side on appeal are slim to none. We look forward to working with the other side to launch new Friday the 13th films, television series and video games.”
We’ve also reached out to counsel representing Horror and Manny in this case and have not received a response as of this time.
Image Credit: Deposit Photos.