On September 30, 2021, the Second Circuit made a significant ruling regarding authors’ termination rights under the Copyright Act of 1976. The ruling was in the case Horror Inc. v. Miller, whereby the Second Circuit had to decide whether Victor Miller created the screenplay for the horror flick Friday the 13th as an employee or independent contractor of the production company, Manny Company, to which he assigned his rights to the screenplay for just $9,000 in 1979. Miller’s employment status was key to determining whether he was entitled to terminate his grant of rights decades later.
Under the Copyright Act, copyright ownership typically “vests initially in the author or authors of the work”, i.e. the person who actually creates the work. However, there is an exception for a work “made for hire”—in this instance, "the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author.” Consequently, unlike an author, a creator of a work-for-hire is unable to terminate prior transfers of ownership of any or all of the exclusive rights in a copyright under Section 203 of the Act.
Horror Inc., which subsequently acquired the rights to the screenplay, sought a declaration that Miller was just an employee at the time and the screenplay he wrote was only a work-for-hire. Ultimately, however, the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling that Miller wrote the screenplay as an independent contractor under copyright law and as such it was not a work-for-hire. Therefore, Miller, as the author, had the right to terminate his transfer of, and reclaim ownership to, the copyright to the scary screenplay.
Horror Inc. v. Miller, No. 18-3123-cv, 2021 WL 4468980 (2d Cir. Sept. 30, 2021).
17 U.S.C. § 201(a).
17 U.S.C. § 201(b).