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Old November 29th, 2008, 08:51 PM   #1
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Screenplay copyrights and cowriters

I searched the BBS for an answer on this, but I didn't find anything.

I've registered a copyright for a screenplay that was written by a co-writer and me. From my understanding, we both have the right to independently grant non-exlusive rights to a production company to turn the screenplay into a film (please correct me if I am wrong). That means that either one of us can grant rights to anyone else without consulting each other.

My question is: if I decide to shoot the screenplay myself, how do I determine if/how much the co-writer gets paid?

It is hard to assume that my co-writer could get nothing, but I'm essentially granting myself non-exlusive rights to the screenplay at no cost, so how would I determine any cost for my co-writer?

A related question would be: If I sell non-exlusive rights to an external production company for some sum of money, does the co-writer have to be paid anything?

Thanks for any clarity.

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Old November 30th, 2008, 04:47 AM   #2
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Regardless of what the law says, doesn't ethics and a sense of fair play say that both authors are entitled to a share of any revenue proportional to their overall contributions to the work? Seems to me that's simply the right thing to do, even if the law itself would allow one partner to stiff the other.
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Old November 30th, 2008, 07:23 AM   #3
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Both writers have copyright material within the work even through you have registered it under your name. You'll have to draw up an agreement between yourself and your co-writer that assigns their share of any copyright to you (or perhaps joint ownership) and in exchange they will receive the remuneration and terms you mutually agree to. I suspect this will involve sharing any writing fees between both of you, including any profits that are going to the writer(s). This agreement should pass onto any production company that wishes to take up the script.

I suspect this is something that should have been sorted before the script was registered, but you should reach a mutual agreement in case things get nasty in the future if it becomes a successful film. Production companies and funders don't like having hidden surprises.

An entertainment lawyer would be worthwhile.
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Old November 30th, 2008, 08:25 AM   #4
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Steve and Brian: thanks for your replies.

Steve: Yes, I completely agree that both authors should get paid.

Brian: I'd agree that we should make/have an agreement. However, right now we don't because we planned on shooting the movie ourselves. There's no guarantee the other author will even want the screenplay filmed under any other arrangement. In that case, I'd have to make decisions without an agreement with him. If I shoot the film under my own production company, I'd be selling the screenplay to myself for nothing. So if the other author was unwilling to negotiate a price (in order to voice displeasure over the filming), then I would be left to negotiate his price with myself which is never a good business idea.

I did a google search for "joint screenplay filmmaking" and pulled up a page from "The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers" by Thomas Crowell (which I might have to purchase). On page 67 he writes, "CAUTION! As a screenwriter, you want to have a say in how your screenplay is licensed, but unless there is a contract between you and your other joint authors specifying how and to whom a screenplay must be licensed, any joint author can grant nonexlusive licenses to the script without having to first seek the permission of the other joint authors!" Below that, he refers the reader to Appendix A: Copyright Law; Joint Authors, p. 249.

Also, I've worked in the music business for years and I have a decent understanding of copyright law from the music angle. If I co-write a song with someone else, we both DO have the right to enter into any non-exclusive arrangement to record or market that song. However in the music world, publishing monies are handled by performing arts organization (like BMI and ASCAP) which would collect royalties from radio stations and other sources and would them distribute them to both me AND my co-author.

Anyone else have Crowell's book and can look up pg 249? I have pulled up the Copyright law, but it isn't clear. It states the following:

"A "joint work" is a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole."

"The authors of a joint work are coowners of copyright in the work."

However, I can't seem to find anything that talks about HOW they share the copyright.


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Old November 30th, 2008, 08:31 AM   #5
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If you registered it under both names as co-authors, then any proceeds would be shared 50-50. If you produce the film without his/her involvement, they have the right to profit from it.

Reverse the rolls. You find out tomorrow that your writing partner has 'given' the script to an old school friend, and they are shooting it next month.

How do you feel about that?

In short, you're in a tight spot without a written agreement.
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Old November 30th, 2008, 09:10 AM   #6
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By advising me to "reverse the roles," it seems like you are implying that I am trying to rip my co-author off. This is not the case. I am simply trying to figure out how much I am supposed to pay him. I'm assuming you might not have read all of my previous posts in this thread.

Yes, I know that proceeds from the sale of the screenplay should be split 50-50. However, if I sell the screenplay to myself for nothing so I can shoot it myself, then half of nothing is nothing. Or are you saying that I am supposed to sell the script to myself for some random dollar amount just so I can give the co-author some money? And who is going to decide that amount? Or is there something in the law that states a minimum amount a script must be sold for?

So I would ask you to assume my role. Imagine you have co-written a script with someone. You both planned to shoot the movie. Well, things have gone sour, you no longer agree on much and you decide you can't move forward with your co-author. You are still emotionally attached to the script and you still want to shoot it. So you decide to shoot it yourself. Let's imagine the worst case scenario, that the co-author stops talking to you. So you go on and shoot the movie without his input (which should be your legal right to do since as a co-author, you can grant non-exclusive rights to anyone). Now, let's say that the movie somehow ends up grossing $100,000. That money goes to the production company, right? And that is you, isn't it?

Since in this case, the non-exclusive rights to shoot the script were sold to the production company (yourself) for nothing, there should not be any money owed to anyone. Now, in that case, how do you determine how much (if any) to give the co-author? Does the law provide for a certain amount? Do you just randomly pick some dollar amount?
Also, don't forget that the co-author should have the ability to grant non-exclusive rights too. He can do the same thing to me.

Thoughts anyone? What does the law state?
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Old November 30th, 2008, 09:32 AM   #7
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Yes Kelly, I read all of your posts. The law says he owns half the value of the script.

That's it.

That's all the law states.

What you are asking for, is a legal opinion on your 'exposure'. No one here is going to give you one. There are lawyers on this board, and they won't give you one.

There is no 'set' situation for resolving your problem. You need to resolve it BEFORE you spend money and resources. That's my advice. Before you roll tape/film - you need to resolve how any success from these efforts is going to be divided between you and your ex-partner.

If you don't you run the risk of putting all that work in jeopardy.
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