Under the US copyright law, although ideas alone are not protectable, an author or creator owns a copyright in his or her work the moment the author’s expression of the idea is 'fixed in a tangible medium' (i.e., when the expression of an idea is written down or recorded in some manner). Once created, a copyright extends for the life of the author plus 70 years, and in the case of collaborators on a copyright it extends for the life of the last surviving collaborator plus 70 years.
Monday, October 9, 2023
FILM & TELEVISION WRITER COLLABORATION AGREEMENTS: WHAT THEY MEAN AND HOW THEY WORK
This article will focus on the collaboration between and among creators of TV shows, movie scripts, books and theatrical plays. The essence of collaboration is the creators working together to create a single work regardless of how or what each party contributes. Collaborators may work together in the same room at the same time, or not. The creative contribution of each co-author may be equal in quality or quantity, or not. Both authors may work together on the total work, or each might write separate chapters or scenes (or in the case of a book or audio/visual production, one might write words or dialogue while the other is an artist doing graphics and illustrations, etc.) The long history of collaboration has shown that there are endless combinations. Co-authors do not need to have a written agreement concerning their joint work, but it is probably a good idea to do so given the myriad issues that can arise and become a problem under such circumstances.
Co-authors can divide copyright ownership in whatever proportion they determine and that ownership concerns both the rights (i.e., ownership and control) and the revenues (i.e, income generated from the work). In the absence of a written agreement, under current case law concerning both copyright and partnership law, two or more collaborators are generally deemed to share equally on a pro-rata basis. This might be so even if it is clear that the contributions of the authors were not equal since the Courts generally prefer not to make decisions about the value of each author’s contribution to a copyright and simply divide it pro rata by the number of authors (and we probably prefer that Courts not be making decisions about whether the writing in one scene or a particular chapter has more or less value than that of another, etc.). Therefore, without a written agreement two authors would be deemed to own the song fifty-fifty, three writers one-third each, etc.
Beyond the issue of just dividing the income, there arises the issue of copyright ownership and control. In the absence of a written collaboration agreement or other contract stating otherwise, each author retains control over its respective share of the copyright. In this way each writer retains some control over what happens with the work, the scope of any uses, contracts or licenses and how much is charged. Under
Another important question that can arise is what happens if two or more authors start to collaborate on a work and then one departs before the work is completed. This can raise complex legal issues concerning whether the contribution of the departing author is copyrightable and whether the parties had a clear intent to work together to create an indivisible copyrighted work. There have been fact-specific cases that have addressed this situation with differing outcomes depending on different circumstances. In one case, one party had the idea for the play and engaged another party to do more of the actual writing. There was no written agreement, and the parties had a dispute about the direction of the project. The idea party departed and the writing party continued on to complete and produce the work. Later, the departing party sued claiming authorship and co-ownership of the copyright in the work. In that particular case, the Court determined that, since ideas alone are not protectable under copyright law, only the expression of the idea was subject to copyright, therefore, only the writing party had copyright ownership. The departing party had proposed the original idea for the project and had made suggestions along the way, but the contributions were insufficient to create copyrightable material. Therefore, since there was no written agreement to indicate otherwise, the Court determined that only the writing party had an ownership interest in the copyright to the work that the parties had started together.
All of these issues can be addressed in a written collaboration agreement. There are endless variations depending on the circumstances. A collaboration agreement can be as simple as a pie chart drawing made on a napkin over coffee at the diner after the writing session, or as complicated as a writer’s publishing company or TV/film production company dictates that it be.
At the end of the day, if you believe in yourself and your talents, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and invest in good legal representation - all the successful creators do. Your lawyer can create a fair collaboration agreement for you to use or your lawyer can 'translate' the documentation presented to you and explain its terms and then help negotiate more favorable terms for you as appropriate.
My advice: never sign anything - other than an autograph - without having your lawyer review it first.
Wallace Collins is an entertainment lawyer and intellectual property attorney. He was a songwriter and recording artist for Epic Records before receiving his law degree from
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