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Updated: October 26, 2021
While Halloween brings to mind jack-o’-lanterns and spooky scary skeletons, some major horror movie franchises have had their spines tingle from the terrors of copyright infringement. From Friday the 13th to The Stuff, several horror films have caused courts to wrestle with difficult copyright issues. We bring you some standout horror movie copyright cases and their interesting implications to the law.
Effects Associates, Inc. v. Cohen (1990) – Right to Use a Copyrighted Work
Effects Associates, a special effects company, sued Cohen, a moviemaker, for copyright infringement when he used their footage without providing proper compensation or receiving a written license or assignment of copyright. The 9th Circuit analyzed whether a transfer of copyright without a written agreement, which is apparently not uncommon in the motion picture industry, followed the Copyright Act’s requirements.
Cohen created a satirical horror movie titled The Stuff. Primarily, Effects Associates created the dramatic end scene where the Stuff factory, which manufactured an alien life form that looked and tasted like frozen yogurt, explodes. The two parties made an oral agreement for production of the special effects shoots, but they did not discuss copyright ownership.
Cohen was dissatisfied with the scene and only paid Effects Associates half of his promised amount. Yet, Cohen still used the footage in his movie, which was distributed through New World Entertainment. Effects Associates claimed that Cohen did not have the rights to use this footage unless he paid the full contract price.
Regarding whether the copyright had been transferred to Cohen, the court explained how the Copyright Act requires copyright transfers to be made in writing. There is no exception for moviemakers who, according to Cohen, “do lunch, not contracts.”
But the question remained whether Cohen had a license to use the filmed scenes. The court stated that the precedent in Oddo v. Ries controlled. While there was no oral agreement, the parties’ conduct implied that Cohen had a nonexclusive license to use the scenes. Here, Effects Associates created the work at Cohen’s request, intending for Cohen to copy and distribute it. Even though Cohen did not pay the full price for the work, his $56,000 payment implied that the footage’s contribution to the film was not “of minimal value” and without some type of conveyed license.
Based on its findings, the court determined that Effects Associates impliedly granted Cohen a nonexclusive license for its special effects footage used in The Stuff.
Muller v. Twentieth Century Fox (2011) – Access to a Copyrighted Work
Muller, a screenwriter, sued Twentieth Century Fox, alleging that the film company used his script for The Lost Continent without authorization in the movie Alien vs. Predator, thereby infringing his copyright. The parties did not dispute that Muller had copyright ownership in his screenplay, so Muller had to show that copyright infringement, through access and substantial similarity, occurred.
Muller provided several theories on how Anderson, the writer and producer of Alien vs. Predator, received his screenplay: either during his time at a previous film company, during his time at Fox 2000, or from two other independent producers. But Muller didn’t provide any evidence that Anderson did receive or read his screenplay. Muller also testified that he didn’t have any information that would suggest Anderson even received a copy of his screenplay. Further, Anderson testified that he never read the screenplay and hadn’t even heard of Muller or his work before the lawsuit.
The Second Circuit agreed with the lower court that Muller did not supply facts from which a jury could find actual copying. Muller did not show access, probative similarity, striking similarity, or any other element that would demonstrate copying.
The court affirmed the lower court decision, finding that Twentieth Century Fox did not infringe Muller’s copyright.
Horror Inc. v. Miller (2018) – Works Made for Hire and the Termination Right
Horror Inc. v. Miller addressed a unique right that copyright owners have only recently been able to take advantage of: the termination right. In section 203 of the Copyright Act, a creator may terminate all agreements executed on or after January 1, 1978, which license or transfer any of the exclusive rights granted by the Act. But, in most cases (excluding the right of first publication) a creator may only do so 35 years after the effective date of the agreement. Additionally, the creator has a five-year window to make this termination.
In this case, Miller, the credited screenwriter of the original Friday the 13th screenplay, assigned his rights in the screenplay to Horror Inc. The assignment agreement did not specify his authorship of the screenplay.
More than 30 years later, Horror Inc. sought a declaratory judgment that Miller prepared the work as a work made for hire. If this was the case, then Miller would not have authorship rights in the work and would not have the right to terminate Horror Inc.’s rights to the work.
A court looks to several factors to determine whether a work is a work made for hire. Here, the court found that the screenplay was not a work made for hire because it was not specially commissioned as a work made for hire in a signed written agreement, and Miller did not prepare the screenplay as Horror Inc.’s employee or within the scope of any such employment. Even though a Horror Inc. employee had ultimate approval over Miller’s work, this factor did not transform Miller’s relationship from an independent contractor into an employee.
Ultimately, the court found Miller to be the sole author of the screenplay. In addition, the court determined that Miller validly terminated Horror Inc.’s rights to use his screenplay, successfully gaining back copyright ownership in his work.
The case was subsequently affirmed on appeal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Purohit v. Legend Pictures, LLC (2020) – Copyrightable Elements in a Work and Access
Purohit v. Legend Pictures addresses issues of copyrightability and access. Purohit alleged that Legend Pictures infringed his book, The Krampus Night Before Christmas, in the motion picture, Krampus. Purohit pointed to Krampus’ physical description in the book and depiction in the film, including “original and distinctive elements” like “horns like those of a Walia ibex, a lack of black fur, a pronounced hunch, a long beard, glowing slanted eyes, a tattered red robe, limply bent arms, and clawed hands.” Purohit also claimed that the film copied the distinctive way he designed his Krampus to enter a home through a fireplace, along with other “original and distinctive elements” of his book, including “dark elves,” “demonic toys,” and “evil, shaggy reindeer.”
First, the court addressed the copyrightability of Purohit’s claimed work. The court explained how Purohit’s Krampus character was based on a folklore Krampus, a public domain character. As such, the Krampus character itself is not protectible because it is an idea and in the public domain. But a particular expression of a public domain character may be protectible if it is a “distinguishable variation.”
Here, the characteristics that Purohit claimed to be original and distinctive were not protectible—they were “too common and generic, and constitute[d] scenes-a-faire that flow[ed] directly from historical depictions of Krampus and themes of both Christmas and horror entertainment.” The court also held that the Krampus’ entrance and the dark elves, demonic toys, and evil, shaggy reindeer were unprotectible by copyright because these elements were merely ideas and not copyrightable expression.
In addition, the court held that the “total concept and feel” of the two Krampuses were not substantially similar—the film portrayed Krampus mostly in shadow, with a mystical and demonic air, while in Purohit’s book, Krampus was more anthropomorphic.
Second, the court addressed whether Legend Pictures had access to Purohit’s work. But, since Purohit first needed to demonstrate substantial similarity of copyrightable elements between the two works, the court did not analyze whether access or actual copying occurred.
As a result, the court found that there was no substantial similarity between the two works and Purohit failed to state a claim of copyright infringement.