THE LAW OF COPYRIGHT
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.