BRIDGEPORT, Ct. (CN) – Taking his own stab at suspenseful prose, a federal judge found Friday that the man who sold the rights to “Friday the 13th” for just over $9,000 in 1979 is entitled to claw back the copyright.
“Nearly 40 years ago, a screenplay was written about Camp Crystal Lake,” the 62-page decision opens. “The film created from the screenplay went on to significant commercial success. Below that peaceful surface, however, was the Copyright Act’s termination right, waiting for just the right moment, when it would emerge and wreak havoc on the rights to the screenplay.”
Decided on Friday the 28th, the ruling in favor of screenwriter Victor Miller explains that the Copyright Act only took effect in 1978. Though the law granted authors the new benefit of being able to reclaim their copyrights once 35 years have passed, it also excludes independent contractors.
In 1979, a year after the success of the low-budget horror film “Halloween” had whet producers’ appetites, Miller was paid a lump sum of $9,282 for his screenplay and what is known in the business as a treatment.
The slasher flick went on to gross over $39.7 million in the U.S. box office, and 10 years later Miller wrangled another $27,396.46 to settle his disputes over residuals. Since then, Miller secured an additional $200,000. He was hit with a lawsuit in 2016, however, after serving three notices on the successors of the film with the intent of terminating their copyright.
Bringing their case in Connecticut, Horror Inc. and the Manny Co. argued that Miller was ineligible for the Copyright Act’s benefits because he penned “Friday the 13th” as a for-hire employee. Underhill determined Friday, however, that Miller met many of the characteristics of an independent contractor, having supplied his own tools, set his own hours and not worked at the hiring party’s place of business.
Though Manny did sign a a collective bargaining agreement with Miller’s union, the Writers’ Guild of America, in 1979, Underhill found this insufficient to deny Miller status as an independent contractor.
“Absent any basis in statute or precedent, the argument that the relevant measure of an independent contractor’s independence is his ability to depart from the terms of a collective bargaining agreement seems grounded in nothing other than Horror’s and Manny’s optimistic assertion that that is the case,” he wrote.
The ruling also emphasizes that Manny did not offer Miller employee benefits such as health care or a typewriter, and it did not deduct taxes or social security payments from his wages.
“Unfortunately for Horror and Manny, the Supreme Court’s agency-law analysis does not allow any exceptions for union members,” Underhill wrote, “and under the proper agency analysis Miller was not Manny’s employee. Accordingly, the screenplay written by Miller was not a work-for-hire.”
As to whether Miller can claim copyright in the film franchise’s famous monster, the hockey-masked Jason Voorhees, Judge Underhill said this issue is not ripe for adjudication.
“Horror may very well be able to argue that the Jason character present in later films is distinct from the Jason character briefly present in the first film, and Horror or other participants may be able to stake a claim to have added sufficient independently copyrightable material to Jason in the sequels to hold independent copyright in the adult Jason character,” Underhill wrote.
Though Jason is briefly introduced in the first film, the character was later developed in several sequels, a reboot of the original film and the crossover hit “Freddy vs. Jason.” The character Freddy Krueger emerged in 1984 with the film “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Miller’s attorney, John J. Martin, declined to comment on the ruling Monday. An attorney for the plaintiffs, Bonnie E. Eskenazi with Greenberg Glusker, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Another plaintiffs’ attorney, Alexander Rudolf Malbin with Ferdinand IP, LLC, could not be reached at the end of business hours Monday.