Sunday, July 23, 2006

Copyright, and Your Rights

The Calendar section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times has a nice article on copyright issues, "Just whose idea is it anyway?," by Marc Porter Zasada. . . Copyright is something that comes up again and again, not just because it's a huge issue for the studios that employ us, but because many of us are doing our own creating outside of the work-for-hire environment of our day jobs. But let's consider that personal creative work. It doesn't have to be a finished screenplay, or a pitch bible, or a short film. As this article points out, modern copyright law considers almost anything one puts into tangible form, including "Doodles, marginalia, kid drawings, and etc.," as creative properties. Your grocery list is subject to modern copyright law. As any of us who have taken the time to read the boilerplate language of our personal service agreements have noticed, most studios claim ownership of anything we create during the term of service. If almost anything we jot down or doodle counts as a creative property, where does that end? It dawned on me the first time I signed a PSA that if I had a dream and, upon awakening, wrote it down, that my dream could potentially be owned by the studio I was working for. Look for "Work-for-Hire Dreams" in the fall lineup of your favorite cable network. The good news is that no studio has ever tried to make such a far-reaching claim, and from the legal experts I've consulted, a studio's success in pursuing such a claim (despite the PSA language) would be unlikely. Still, the common sense advice I've heard to avoid any potential problems is two-fold: First, keep your personal creative projects and your studio work separate. Never work on (or even discuss) your private work at the studio. If you use studio resources or equipment, even if it's during your own time and on creations that are clearly distinct from anything the studio has going, then you're asking for trouble. If the studio gets wind of your project, then at best they might expect the right of first and last refusal on the project, and at worst might claim it outright. Second, if you have projects you plan to pursue while working at a studio, you should probably have them explicitly listed in your PSA and excluded as part of your work for hire. Most studios are willing to do that, as long as you're not coming up with projects that will compete with their own, and as long as you acknowledge that they might be developing similar projects independently of yours. We'd be interesting in hearing from anyone who has actual experiences with pursuing their own creative projects ( including comics, screenplays, books, etc.) while working under contract at one of the studios.


Steve Hulett said...

Copyrights, thanks to the '98 copyright act, now are 95 years for corporate authorship, and life of author plus seventy years for individual copyrights.

The Founders of the Republic were okay with a 28-year copyright (fourteen years plus one extension), but that has gone by the wayside in this era of corporatism. It's interesting how "original intent" is so important -- except when it's not.

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