Q: I just got back from Comic-Con a few weeks ago and met a writer there who had written a comic book that I think would be perfect for a film. I’m interested in optioning the book but I’m not really sure how to go about it since I’ve never dealt with comics before. Anything special I should be worried about?
A: Faithful Readers! Your Law Law Land Q&A team wishes we knew that you were at Comic-Con! We were there as well, championing the cause of legal geeks everywhere. You may have seen us: the unlikely duo of Captain Caveman and Slave Leia roaming the floors. But, alas, we recognize that with negligible power, comes negligible responsibility…so we are back behind our desks, glasses on, no one the wiser and are here to answer your questions.
Acquiring rights in comic books is much like acquiring rights to other properties. The first and most basic thing you need to know is who holds the rights you want to acquire. In the comic book world, there are a few different business models that are based on the size of the publisher involved; who owns the rights you need may depend on what type of publisher issued the comic book you like. If you’re dealing with one of the big two, namely Marvel or DC, chances are the publisher owns the rights in the comic book. There’s a reason Marvel created its own motion picture production company: it was tired of hiring and paying third parties to make movies based on its own properties.
I’m going to assume you were talking to writers who’ve published books through smaller, independent publishers. In the majority of these cases, the writer will retain his or her IP. The publisher doesn’t take any ownership interest in the comics it releases; it simply markets and distributes them and takes a little bit of little bit of money they make.
Therefore, you likely will be able to obtain the rights in the comic book directly from the writer you met. However, to be safe, as part of your due diligence process, you should ask to see a copy of the writer’s agreement with the publisher just to make sure there aren’t any provisions stating that the publisher owns the rights to the comic book or has some limited first right to make a movie based on it.
Of course, there’s a chance the writer has already written a screenplay based on the comic book and, if so, you would need to acquire (or option) two things: the screenplay itself AND the movie rights to the underlying comic book. Without the relevant rights to the comic book itself, your ability to do much outside the confines of the writer’s script would be in question. You don’t want a situation in which the comic book writer claims that you have no right to rewrite the screenplay nor any right to take anything from the comic book not specifically in that screenplay.
Another thing to consider that is unique to comic books: while the writer may have created (and thus owns rights in) the story, he may not have created the look of the characters because there is also an artist involved. For example, if the artist conceptualized and created a super hero’s elaborate costume, you will need to obtain rights from the artist if the hero in your movie will be wearing the same get up. Often a comic book’s power comes from its visuals. If you want to use those visuals in your movie, you have to get rights from the artist who created them.
Good luck with your comic book movie. I hear a few of them have made a wee bit of money recently. While you’re off making your movie, the Law Law Land Q&A duo will continue to perch themselves on the rooftops of Century City, in their business casual uniforms, gazing down on common entertainment folk, doing their best to them prevent common legal mistakes.
This blog was originally published as part of Legal Ease, Film Independent’s weekly column on legal matters pertaining to the entertainment industry. To see other LEGAL EASE columns please click here.