Introduction to US Copyright Law

By Brandon A. Blake, Entertainment Lawyer

Under current copyright law, works need not be registered with the copyright office as a prerequisite for copyright protection. Copyright automatically vests when the work is fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as a printed page. However, there are many benefits to registering the copyright in a work, including guaranteed statutory damages, the right to compensation for lawyers fees if the filmmaker must file suit against an infringer, and the ability to document the chain-of-title for later distribution purposes. Generally producers will retain an entertainment lawyer for such services.

The copyright office has a number of separate forms for registering different types of works. An entertainment lawyer can help determine how a production is classified by the Copyright Act. Screenplays are considered works  intended to be performed. Depending on the work to be copyrighted, either a long or short form registration may be used. Copyright registration costs are small compared to the potential benefits, making copyright registration a good precautionary step in avoiding later disputes.

Motion Picture Copyrights

A film is a derivative work, or in other words, it is based on many other existing works that may also have been copyrighted. Even a film based on an original screenplay is derivative because the film by necessity is based on the screenplay itself. A filmmaker must make sure to acquire the rights to all of the works the film is based on.

What filmmakers often donít know, is that all of the collaborators in a film, such as the director of photography, sound technicians, art directors, and many others can all qualify as authors of the film under federal copyright law. U.S. Copyright law has provided for the collaborative nature of film making by creating the work-for-hire doctrine, which states that all of the various artists and craftspeople that are typically found on a film set can work on a film while the copyright ownership remains with the production company. The work-for-hire doctrine is more fully discussed below.

In general the producer is ultimately responsible for registering the copyright of the film with the Copyright Office in the name of the production company. This helps give the production company the right to sell, license, or modify the film, unless certain contractual obligations apply.


Works for Hire

Part of the work-for-hire doctrine in the U.S. Copyright Act is specifically directed towards filmmakers. If the filmmaker wants to avoid sharing the copyright in the film with all of the participants in the production of the film, the filmmaker must enter into a written agreement with each person involved in the production of the motion picture.

Even if no money is exchanged, these agreements will insure that the production company alone holds the copyright in the work.

Everyone who works on the film and contributes to the production or postproduction must sign a copyright agreement. On most films, this is one of the clauses inserted into an employment contract with the different parties involved.

Documentaries and University Film Making

Sometimes institutions like universities or grant foundations claim that a copyright in the film belongs to the institution, either because the filmmaker is a grantee or a student or because the filmmaker is using the institutionís equipment. Care must be taken before accepting funds or facilities, so that the institution will not later claim a stake in the production.

To insure that the filmmaker, not the institution, holds the copyright in the film, it may be advisable to require an authorized party at the institution to sign an agreement, clarifying that the film belongs exclusively to the filmmaker. It will be beneficial in the long run to always stay aware of the obligations and expectations of institutional funding and facility support.



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