Copyright

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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On a Saturday night in September, I took my wife to the first ever “Call of Duty” convention, hosted by Activision Blizzard inside a hangar on the old airfield where Howard Hughes built the Spruce Goose. Did I tell her ahead of time that I was taking her to a nerd convention where the only food available would be burgers and fries from a recreated fictional in-firstgame restaurant called “Burger Town?” No way! I told her I was taking her to a Kanye West concert! Which was kind of true.Kanye was the “big performance” at the end of the geekfest (which explains why increasingly better looking people started showing up as time went by). Unfortunately, even Kanye’s harem of near-naked dancers could not distract from the utter awfulness of Kanye’s performance. Worst. Concert. Ever. (And yes, he did have an I-am-a-Greek-god theme going on in the background.)


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For those of us (males) who entered adolescence in the early ‘90s, Angelina Jolie is a semi-celestial being whose very presence makes us want to cry out “we’re not worthy.”  Okay, so maybe the 13 year-old in me still wants to be Crash Override spelling out “CRASH AND BURN” for Acid Burn after defeating The Plague.  But that


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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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Remember the “senior superlatives” from your high school yearbook? Maybe you were voted “most likely to succeed” or “most likely to be a rock star.” Me? My dear classmates graciously awarded my best friend and me the title of “Most Likely To Be in an X-Rated Movie.” (It was unclear whether we were supposed to star in it together or what.) At the time, I pretended it was a compliment, smiled and curtseyed, and then secretly vowed to spend the rest of my life proving them wrong. Well Bellingham High School Class of 2002, now I realize what you actually meant to say: Amber M. Burroff, “Most Likely To Write a Sassy and Salacious Legal Blog About an X-Rated Movie.”

So, here’s the scoop. In April 2009, Arrow Productions, Inc., owner and distributor of Deep Throat — a tastefully-titled carnal classic whose plot (the sexual adventures of a sexually frustrated woman who is in search of the saucy secret to the female orgasm) is surpassed in greatness only by its tagline (“How far does a girl have to go to untangle her tingle?”) — filed suit against VCX Ltd. and its owner, David Sutton, alleging a variety of claims for copyright and trademark infringement arising out of VCX’s unauthorized distribution of Deep Throat. According to Arrow’s complaint, VCX and Arrow are both in the business of “selling prerecorded sexually oriented motion pictures for personal home use, presently and, in recent years, in DVD format and previously in VHS videotape format.” (Translation: “we sell porn.”) And in addition to competing for sales of Deep Throat, Arrow and VCX have both long distributed one of the other seminal classics of the “Golden Age of Porn,” Debbie Does Dallas.

Last month, though, after two and a half years of down-and-dirty legal combat, Arrow and VCX suddenly settled the lawsuit, with the parties agreeing that Arrow would hold the exclusive rights to Deep Throat, while VCX would move forward as the exclusive distributor of Debbie Does Dallas. So now that this long-running battle over two titans of adult film history has come to a sudden and anti-climactic finish, what lessons can we learn?
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About a year ago, I wrote my very first blog regarding copyright protection for choreography. In that post, I explained that even though dance is one of the world’s oldest art forms, the legal framework around copyright protection for choreography is still one of the least developed around. And, as our loyal readers will recall, the combination of law nerd/ex-dancer in me affectionately wished for the day that we would see a courtroom battle over choreography theft. Unfortunately for Beyoncé, the countdown may be over. (Cheesy pun intended.)

Most of you had probably never heard of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a Belgian contemporary dance choreographer. That is, until the recent release of Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video. Almost immediately following the release of “Countdown,” Beyoncé faced allegations that she stole the choreography featured in her video from two of De Keersmaeker’s contemporary works, Rosas danst Rosas (1993) and Achterland (1990). While Beyoncé admits that De Keersmaeker’s works were “one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life,” her official statement — no doubt vetted by a team of lawyers — was careful not to admit that she (or, more appropriately, her team) actually copied De Keersmaeker’s choreography. Thanks to YouTube and those of you out there with way too much time on your hands, however, we can analyze De Keersmaeker’s claims for ourselves and determine whether “Countdown” crosses the line between inspiration and imitation.

First, take a look at Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XY3AvVgDns

And then take a look at De Keersmaeker’s works featured in this split-screen comparison:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDT0m514TMw

Yeah, that’s kind of hard to explain away.

Although De Keersmaeker claims that she is neither upset nor honored that Beyoncé copied her dance moves, she made a point to say that “there are protocols and consequences to such actions, and I can’t imagine [Beyoncé] and her team are not aware of it.” Is De Keersmaeker right about those consequences? That is, does Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video infringe De Keersmaeker’s copyright in her choreography? Let’s recap some of the things we have learned here at Law Law Land.
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Q: I have a question regarding the rights needed to make a film “based on” a book, and/or “inspired by” a book. First of all, is there a legal difference between these two terms? It seems that one implies a more direct adaptation (“based on”) and the other a looser connection to a book, but is there some legal basis for determining this? Also, does one need to purchase the rights to a book that “inspires” their film? How about a book that it is “based on”?

A: In answer to your first question, while technically there is no legal significance to the specific words “based on” or “inspired by,” there is legal significance to what each term may imply.
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It’s not even news anymore to report that yesterday, the world lost a visionary and a true inspiration — Steve Jobs. Personally, I was devastated by the news. Although I didn’t know Steve Jobs personally, I nevertheless feel a sense of personal loss now that he has passed. Why am I so saddened by the death of someone I never knew?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been an Apple guy ever since I played my first computer game on my neighbor’s Apple IIe. I bought my first Macintosh computer in 1987 (a Mac Plus with a single floppy drive and no hard drive). Even through the dark years after the company stupidly fired its heart, soul and creative genius, I was still an Apple guy and tried to convince everyone else that Macs were the best computers around. Back then, people thought I was crazy (not one of the good “Crazy Ones” Apple highlighted in this classic ad to revive the company in the late 90s, just a real crazy one). Thanks to Steve Jobs, nobody calls me crazy anymore — well, at least not because of my love of Apple products.

But I’m clearly not alone in feeling that sense of personal loss. The Internet is already rife with comparisons of Steve Jobs’ loss to the deaths of rock stars like John Lennon and Elvis. Why? Maybe it’s because Steve Jobs is largely responsible for changing so much about how we live our lives.
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Last Friday, a federal district court in Michigan dismissed the complaint of Richard Pollick, the alleged creator of “diaper jeans,” i.e., disposable baby diapers designed to look like jeans (truly, an invention on par with the piano key neck tie). Pollick registered a copyright for his “Diaper Jeans artwork” in February 1981 and sent the design to Kimberly-Clark Corp. later that year. Kimberly-Clark Corp. eventually started selling Huggies “Jeans Diapers,” and Pollick filed a lawsuit.

Amazingly, this is the second bathroom-related infringement lawsuit to cross our path at Law Law Land in the last few months, proof that you are never truly safe, even on the comfort of your own commode. Unfortunately for Pollick, however, the court took one whiff of his claim and tossed it, ruling that “a simple visual comparison shows that not only are the diapers not substantially similar, they are substantially different….”

Let’s take a look at the evidence.
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Q: I am optioning a German film to do an English-language remake. Anything special I need to worry about?

A: Well, apparently you need to worry about broccoli. Does your film have anything to do with broccoli? Are you going to be eating broccoli while filming? What’s the broccoli status of your film? Do you even like broccoli? Honestly, I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to answer all the concerns you may need to address if broccoli is involved.

If broccoli is not involved, you’ll still have some issues you’ll need to address. Because copyrights can be divvied up, and you’re dealing with a pre-existing movie with its entire bundle of rights, you have to worry about exactly what rights you’re getting and what rights they’re keeping.
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