Contracts

In February, I wrote about a particularly fake-haired boneheaded lawsuit that Donald Trump brought against comedian Bill Maher.  As you may recall, Trump accused Maher of breach of contract based on a joke that Maher had made on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, in which he had jokingly — really, completely obviously, jokingly — offered $5 million to the charity of Trump’s choice (the Hair Club for Men was Maher’s suggestion) if the real-estate mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-national-punchline could provide proof that he was not, in fact, “the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.”  Ignoring the scientific impossibility of humans and orangutans being capable of producing offspring, and surely torturing his poor lawyer (whom he conscripted to respond to Maher), Trump purported to “accept” this offer by sending Maher a letter enclosing a copy of his birth certificate (short form only, though!) and demanding payment of the $5 million.  When Maher did not respond to the letter, Trump went bananas and filed a lawsuit.

After recounting Bill Maher’s hilarious response to the lawsuit, I boldly joined the near-consensus of legal observers in predicting that Trump would lose the lawsuit.  And I’m here to report, I was wrong — Trump never even had a chance to lose the case, because he dismissed the lawsuit himself, perhaps as a result of his lawyers reaching the same conclusion I did.  (Or perhaps, Trump’s simian brain finally realized that the situation had evolved beyond his control.)

 
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We here at Law Law Land are big fans of Halloween, the drunkest, sluttiest, most creative and fun-loving holiday of the year.  Law Law Land HQ itself is awash in cat ears and warlock coats today, and your editor is looking forward to a heaven-vs.-hell, angel-vs.-devil ping pong grudge match of epic proportions tonight.  But if you’re looking for a real fright on Halloween night, just consider some of the following truly scary cases and claims.

If the Past Is Never Dead, Does That Mean the Past Is Undead?

William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Woody Allen-mouthpiece Owen Wilson less-famously said, in 2011’s Midnight in Paris, “The past is not dead!  Actually, it’s not even past.  You know who said that?  Faulkner.  And he was right.  And I met him, too.  I ran into him at a dinner party.”  And Faulkner’s estate is now infamously saying that, if you use Faulkner’s line (ish) in a movie, with attribution, you have broken the law.

Faulkner’s estate is suing Sony Pictures Classics for copyright infringement and trademark infringement, claiming that Midnight in Paris’s misquote of Faulkner’s famous aphorism from 1950’sRequiem for a Nun not only infringes their copyright, but also violates the federal trademark statute by deceiving viewers into believing that the movie was affiliated, endorsed, or authorized by the Faulkner estate.  So are Sony’s lawyers running scared into the night?  Not likely.  But the distant howls you might be hearing are actually the pained wails of frustrated intellectual property law professors everywhere.

(Special kudos to the usually-dry-as-a-skeleton Courthouse News Service for observing, “at risk of offending the shade, or estate, of Charles Dickens:  This is a far, far weirder thing than Sony has ever done.”)


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Q:  I’m a writer/director.  I wrote a script that’s getting some traction.  I obviously want to sell it but on one condition:  I have to direct the movie.  I don’t think anyone else can do it justice…  A producer just presented me with an option agreement.  In our conversations, he agreed that I could be the director.  In the option agreement, it says that in the event the project receives financing and if a few other conditions are met, I’ll be engaged to direct the film on a “pay or play” basis.  I know that “pay or play” is a good thing so does this mean the producer is essentially agreeing that I’m the director?

A:  When I first started practicing entertainment law, I believed the term “Pay or Play” referred to the next hot NBC primetime game show, which I assumed would be hosted by Gallagher.  Fortunately for all of us, it’s not.  However, I’ve found that while it is a very commonly used contract term, and everyone wants it in their agreements, there is (as evidenced by your question) some confusion about the full extent of its implications.


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Sure, most of America might be abuzz about how poor NFL refereeing definitelymay or may not have swung the outcome of this week’s showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football.  But this week, the NFL doesn’t have a monopoly on sports-and-games fairness scandals (even if its scandals might have the most effect on Vegas betting linesand home fantasy football leagues everywhere).  That’s because of a new case that will surely rock the (narrow, quirky, cloistered) world of game show and trivia nerds everywhere.

So here’s a trivia question for you:  what happens when producers of a game show tell two contestants there will be no trick questions on the show, and then throw something that might be considered a “trick question,” causing those contestants to blow $580,000 in potential winnings?  Do the contestants:

(A)  Quietly retreat to their homes and try never to look at the chain of excoriating comments on the YouTube video of their defeat.

(B)  Launch an inspiring grassroots campaign on the Internet to get a second run on the show.

(C)  Reevaluate their personal choices and embrace new lives of monastic asceticism, untempted by the siren’s call of game show winnings.

(D)  Sue.

If you guessed D, congratulations!  You win…the rest of this article.  So can two contestants who lost it all on TV win it back in the courtroom?

Before we answer that question, you must understand:  I’m a particularly qualified expert to opine on this subject.  Sure, the law degree is nice, but lots of people have those.  I, on the other hand, have particular insight on the question of what happens when you, oh, I don’t know, lose a half-million dollars in winnings (give or take) in the span of about 4 minutes in front of a national network primetime audience.  So I think these plaintiffs can take it from me when I say, Run from this lawsuit.  Run like the wind.


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 Q: A producer has offered to option my script.  I’m just starting out so the numbers are pretty low (it’s a 12 month option for $1,000 with a purchase price of the WGA scale).  I’m cool with that but have one problem with it:  what happens if she turns around and sells the option to a studio for a lot of money?  I think that’s what she plans to do.

A:  Pat yourself on the back, my friend.  You just spotted an issue that is often overlooked in standard option agreements.  To answer this, let’s talk a little background.


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I think it’s pretty clear that the legal world does not always jibe with the real world (and especially not The Real World: Cancun).  Take capitalization for instance.  In the real world, it doesn’t mean much.  In fact, based on what I’ve seen on Twitter and in hip wedding invitations, I believe the “art” of capitalization has been completely lost by our society (and, of course, neither of our presidential candidates is brave enough to tackle the topic).  In the bizarro world of the law, however, capitalization is a detail that can prove to be of paramount importance.

This was a lesson recently learned the hard way by King of All Media Howard Stern – if you consider losing a $300 million bonus the “hard way.”


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Q:  I am a young filmmaker in Australia.  I have been chasing the film rights to a book written by an American author.  I have gone through the various publishers and have finally been given the name of the agent who represents the author in the States.  I am interested in knowing if the film rights to the authors book are available, and if they are, I want to know the correct pathway to go down to purchase them.

A:  To find out if the film rights are available, all you need to do is ask the agent (but you also need to do a lot of other things described at the end of this blog).  Assuming the rights are available and owned by the author, the next step is to negotiate the deal with the agent on behalf of the author to option the film rights.  (If the agent is a tough negotiator, you can try to cut him out of the equation and deal directly with the author; that’s a risky strategy that can backfire.  But don’t worry, there are other books available.)  And if you make the deal, the final step is to document the deal in an option agreement.  You could actually purchase the rights, as you suggest in your question, but it’s unusual to do so — the typical way to go about this is to option the rights.

 
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Q: Hello, I just read the article on what “defined net profits” is/means.  I’ve just signed a deal memo and am concerned with the wording…actual proceeds, no mention of gross or net (which may be a good thing).  Please let me know what might be next steps…

A: The basic difference between gross and net is the off the top deduction of expenses and fees in calculating net.  Speaking of off the tops, I just came from a bris.  It was a particularly good one.  Have you ever been?  If not, find one on Facebook or Craigslist, grab a few friends, and attend.  You’ll enjoy it.  Mohels tend to have a great sense of humor.

Anyway, your deal is probably with a production company that will not distribute the film itself.  And the term “actual proceeds” probably refers to the revenues received by the production company.  The blog about “defined net proceeds” focused on a distributor or studio definition of back-end, which is basically distribution revenues less distribution costs.  In your case, if in fact your deal is with a production company that will not distribute the film itself, you will be participating in the production company’s revenues.

 
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Q: I wrote, directed and produced a sci-fi action short that I think would make a great big budget feature. In the meantime, I have a friend who works for a small video game developer who absolutely loves the concept of my short and thinks it would make for a great game. I think it would be very cool and am thinking about putting together some sort of deal with my friend, but I don’t want to do anything that could jeopardize my ability to someday make a studio film based on my short. Should I just pass or do you think there’s a way I could make this work?

A: For you and your friend’s sake, I hope your short doesn’t involve a chubby, mustachioed Italian plumber with a love of coins who’s intent on saving a princess from mushroom and turtle creatures… in space. If that’s the case, we may have a problem. If not, there’s a chance you can make this work, but you’re right to be concerned about the possibility that your granting of rights to this video game developer could later affect your ability to produce a big screen adaptation of your short film.

First a quick note to those readers who think this may not apply to them because it involves video games: the majority of these issues would arise with respect to a production of any type of derivative work based on something you own, whether it be a video game, a book, a stage play, etc. so don’t be afraid to keep reading!
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Q: I have a question that I’ve been toiling over for months. I’ve done some research on it and cannot find a clear answer. I’m beginning to work with a writer on a screenplay on someone who died about 20 years ago. She has surviving brothers, but her parents are dead and she never married or had children. What type of life story rights do we need to acquire to tell this story — a screenplay that could potentially turn into a feature film? I guess the first question should be do I even need to buy or acquire the life story rights? Can I just change her name?

A: First of all, there is really no such thing as life story rights. There is the right against being defamed. There is the right against certain private facts about you being publicly disclosed without your permission — the New York Times would be violating it if its reporter sneaked in your bedroom, copied your most secret diary entries, and published them. And there are certain other rights of this nature. But there is no life story rights. When you buy life story rights, what you really “buy” is a promise from the subject of your story that they will not sue you for defamation or any number of other possible violations of their privacy rights.

In theory, you can make a movie about anyone alive without obtaining their “life story rights,” as long as the movie doesn’t defame the subject and doesn’t violate all these other privacy rights. In practice, that’s hard to do and no matter how much you try not to violate these rights, you can’t stop someone from alleging you did. So practically, in most cases, when a movie is made about someone alive, “life story rights” are acquired.

Now let’s focus on the dead. Perfect timing — Halloween is less than a month away. The dead can’t be defamed. The dead have no rights of privacy. The dead have no say about how they’re portrayed in movies. You can say anything you want about the dead, true, false, or in between. Well, not all of the dead.
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