“Friday the 13th” Screenwriter Victor Miller Had Authorship Rights, Court Holds

In Horror Inc. v. Miller, 15 F.4th 232 (2d Cir. Sept. 30, 2021), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision holding that screenwriter Victor Miller held authorship rights with respect to the movie Friday the 13th.

From the decision:

This dispute concerns whether, for Copyright Act purposes, the screenwriter Victor Miller was an employee or independent contractor of the film production company Manny, Inc., in 1979, when Miller wrote the screenplay for the landmark horror film Friday the 13th, released in 1980. Almost forty years later, in 2016, Miller gave notice to Manny purporting to terminate its copyright under the authority vested in authors by section 203 of the Act. See 17 U.S.C. § 203. If Miller was Manny’s employee when he wrote the screenplay, then it is a “work made for hire” under the Act; Manny, not Miller, owns the screenplay; and Miller’s notice is of no effect. Alternatively, if Miller was an independent contractor vis-à-vis Manny when he wrote the screenplay, and if certain other conditions are satisfied, then Miller is entitled to terminate Manny’s and its successors’ rights and, as author, to reclaim his own.

Manny argues primarily that Miller’s membership in the Writers’ Guild of America, East, Inc. (“WGA”), and Manny’s participation in the producers’ collective bargaining agreement with the WGA in the same period establish that Miller was Manny’s employee for Copyright Act purposes. We reject that argument and conclude that Miller was an independent contractor when he wrote the screenplay and is therefore entitled to authorship rights. Accordingly, the notice of termination that he gave under section 203 is effective as to Manny and its successors.

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