Why Horror, Inc. And Victor Miller Are Battling Over The Rights To 'Friday The 13th' Now
Jason Voorhees usually tears apart his on-screen victims in the Friday The 13th films, but now the franchise itself could potentially be hacked into pieces as a lawsuit was filed in federal court in Connecticut this past Wednesday that will determine who holds rights and may license new film versions of the horror film classic Friday the 13th.
The Hollywood Reporter broke the news and according to a complaint by Horror, Inc. and the Manny Company, original Friday The 13th film writer Victor Miller is looking to take advantage of a provision in copyright law that allows authors to terminate a grant of rights and reclaim ownership. Miller first filed a Notice of Termination for the rights on January 26, 2016 and later updated his copyright termination request in June and then finally in July. In his request, the rights of Horror Inc. would be terminated as of July 1st, 2018 and would revert to Victor Miller.
So why has this happened now, all of these years after the original film was released in theaters? Well, to get a better understanding of the situation, we decided to ask an entertainment lawyer who deals with copyright and trademark matters...and also starred in a Friday The 13th film himself!
I recently spoke with Larry Zerner (Shelly, Friday The 13th Part 3), who has a very successful law practice in Los Angeles (www.zernerlaw.com), and discussed why Victor Miller chose now to try and claim ownership of the franchise. In talking with Larry, he advised me that the aforementioned provision in copyright law that Victor Miller is exercising is that creators of original work must wait a minimum of 35 years before they can reclaim works they created. Furthermore, you must file two years before the date of termination takes place. In this case, since Victor filed in 2016, he must wait until 2018 to reclaim rights. Technically, Victor could have filed in 2015 for a 2017 termination, since the copyright for Friday The 13th was originally filed in 1980.
An interesting side note to this provision is the timing of the creation of the original film. That provision in copyright law that Victor is exercising could have allowed for a much longer wait period. According to Larry, for works created before 1978, authors had to wait 55 years before filing for termination of rights. The law was changed after that year to allow for only 35 years to wait. Victor Miller is lucky they made the film at the turn of the decade!
So now our readers understand why Miller waited until now to file his Notice of Termination, but what really is at stake? Horror Inc and Manny Company have filed their lawsuit in Connecticut against Victor Miller to head him off at the pass, so to speak. It's a legal move to stop his termination of rights filing and, in my opinion, likely force his hand to settle out of court. If Miller doesn't settle, then it is the responsibility of Horror Inc. and company to prove that he was a paid employee of the company which would nullify his action to terminate the copyright.
First and foremost, Larry Zerner has reviewed Victor Miller's original contract for writing Friday The 13th and he mentioned to me that it is not explicitly stated that Victor was a "writer-for-hire" or employed by Manny Company. In this case, one could view Miller as an independent contractor and fully in his right to claim the copyright of Friday The 13th. If this is found to be true by the court, then it is the responsibility of Horror Inc. to prove that Victor Miller, although credited as the sole writer of the film, was not the only creative behind designing the script and story and that Sean Cunningham was indeed the driving force in shaping the story and ultimately the script.
Larry Zerner advised to me that it would have to be proved that Victor was working with Sean in an ongoing capacity whereas they would be meeting in a "work" location to discuss the film. If the situation was such that Sean would just call Victor over the phone occasionally for updates on the script, that would not be sufficient enough grounds to say that Sean was a collaborating creative force for the project.
Overall, it's a very interesting situation that is coming to a head more than thirty five years after the start of one of the most successful film franchises in motion picture history. There could be a lot of legal proceedings going forward, but Victor Miller could settle out of court and agree to receive a certain royalty for money made in the franchise. Who knows what is in store, but the fans for now do not have to worry about the new Friday The 13th film being released next year. It is still going forward as planned and is not affected by these new developments.
Special thanks go out to Larry Zerner for talking to me about the legalities of this process and giving us all a better understanding of why we are now at the situation provided.